When Penn State players walked through customs and into Dublin around 11 a.m. Wednesday morning, it was still 6 a.m. back home.
Most of them looked as if they’d just woken up. Many of them just had.
And while it took some adjusting, the Nittany Lions made available to reporters insisted they made the most of their seven-plus hour flight from Harrisburg to Dublin while Tuesday faded into Wednesday, three days before they are scheduled to play Central Florida in the Croke Park Classic.
Senior running back Zach Zwinak said he woke up on the plane feeling refreshed after nodding off as soon as the wheels lifted off. Hulking, 6-foot-7 tight end Jesse James said the same — he had a seat on Penn State’s chartered flight next to quarterback Christian Hackenberg and James’ seat reclined all the way back.
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For Zwinak, the weariness didn’t set in until later in the evening.
“A lot of us, at least for me, I’m starting to adjust already,” Zwinak said after Penn State’s practice at University College Dublin. “I’m still tired. But by a good night’s sleep (Wednesday) night and by tomorrow everything should be back to normal because we’re all readjusting to the schedule and time.”
But not everyone was able to sleep seven hours on the plane.
“I’ve never been out of the States and that was the longest flight I’ve ever had,” senior safety Adrian Amos said. “It was a comfortable plane. I slept, but it’s plane sleep. So I’m looking forward to tonight, getting in that bed in the hotel.”
As planned, Penn State players did not make it to their hotel until about 8 p.m. They went straight from the airport to Croke Park for a tour of the stadium and locker room before eating a team lunch. Head coach James Franklin had the shepherds pie. Junior cornerback Jordan Lucas tried a stew-like dish with a side of broccoli.
Afterward, Penn State bused to University College Dublin (UCD) where it began its first practice in Ireland about an hour early. The practice session followed the schedule of Penn State’s typical walk-through session. Usually reserved for Thursdays in training camp, the walk-through featured players in only helmets, practice jerseys and shorts.
A consistent mist fell as clouds hung overhead. Coaches wore pullover jackets and Franklin kept his hood pulled up as the mist, wind and mid-50s temperature provided for a different feel than the warmer conditions players experienced in State College before their departure.
“It’s not real unusual,” Lucas said. “If you’re from State College or live in State College you know exactly what you’re getting into when it comes to the weather. It’s just a little bit early but nothing our bodies aren’t used to. It’s just a regular day at practice.”
And Franklin felt like his players treated it as such despite the long travel and hoopla with the Croke Park tour. Zwinak said he thought he and his teammates were “sharp” and “focused” while senior linebacker Mike Hull said he didn’t notice anyone zoning out or getting distracted.
“I thanked the players for their focus and their attention to detail, their maturity. Because I think we got a lot out of today,” Franklin said. “I’m not going to say it to them, but it’s been a long day considering we got on that flight (Tuesday) night around 11:30 or whatever it is and they haven’t been to sleep (Wednesday) since we got up, since we landed. I’m very appreciative of how they’ve handled it.”
Slippery when wet
The precipitation and soggy natural grass surface provided Penn State with an opportunity, Franklin said.
“We could get some wet ball conditions on Saturday and it helps us prepare for it,” Franklin said. “We got a lot of work done.”
Although the weather forecast is calling for only a 10 percent chance of rain on Saturday, the likelihood of moisture over the next two days is 40 percent and 30 percent, respectively. If the trend keeps up, Croke Park could be wet enough by kickoff.
Hackenberg wants to be prepared and had no trouble handling wet footballs on Wednesday.
“I think it’s just one of those things you have to be able to do it to be successful and I don’t think it’s just the quarterbacks,” Hackenberg said. “It’s also ball security with the running backs, the center exchange, so we will practice it once in a while. Whenever we have that opportunity to get any type of wet ball work by staying outside, as long as we don’t tear the field up, we do that. It’s just part of the game and everyone has to deal with that at some point in time.”
A different pitch
During the tour of Croke Park, Franklin and many Penn State players were stunned to see how big the actual playing surface is.
When used for Gaelic football, Croke Park’s pitch is approximately 40 meters longer and 16 meters wider than the normal soccer and rugby fields. By comparison in yards, Croke Park’s pitch is 472 yards long and 282 yards wide. That makes it 172 yards longer and 142 yards wider than the painted area Penn State and UCF will duel within on Saturday.
“It’s amazing how tiny the American football field looks lined out on the Gaelic field,” Franklin said. “It almost looked like it wasn’t the right size.”
Hackenberg said he didn’t get a chance to throw on the field and wouldn’t know how the different angles and deeper sidelines would or could affect his depth perception during the game.
“I won’t know until we go out and throw the ball but that’s something I’ve thought about, having to stand so far back from the end zone, it’ll be a different dynamic,” Hackenberg said. “We’ll see how dramatic it is come time to get out there and start throwing.”
McSorley earns No. 2 QB spot
True freshman Trace McSorley is listed as Penn State’s second-string quarterback and will be the player to see action if Hackenberg is at any point taken out of the game.
A dual-threat quarterback who helped lead Briar Woods High School (Ashburn, Va.) to four straight championships games, McSorley beat out redshirt freshman Michael O’Connor for the No. 2 spot.
“All those things and qualities that we saw when we recruited him have showed up,” Franklin said. “That’s not always the case. Usually you don’t see it for a year or so but it showed up as soon as he got on campus.”
Although McSorley enrolled earlier this summer and has progressed well, Franklin hinted that the second-string spot will continue to be evaluated as the season unfolds. For now, McSorley’s running abilities -- he accounted for more that 12,000 total yards with many of them on the ground in high school -- give him the edge.
“I don’t think it was a clear-cut deal. You could’ve made the argument for Michael as well,” Franklin said. “But for a guy that only had a certain amount of reps was only on campus (a short time), he picked things up really well mentally. He always seems cool, calm and collected and confident. Made a lot of very big throws. And we haven’t even factored in what he brings to the game with his feet, which is a huge dimension of his game.”