Matt Craig must’ve felt right at home inside Croke Park on Saturday.
Technically, he kind of was at home.
The State College native who graduated from State College High in 1996 before attending Penn State, lives in Ireland full time where he sits on the board of the Irish American Football Association — the governing body for American football in Ireland. For nearly a decade, Craig has been working to bring the game he grew up loving to his home away from home.
On Saturday, Craig witnessed it firsthand as Penn State beat Central Florida in the Croke Park Classic in front of nearly 54,000 fans — most of them Irish. He and the rest of the IAFA are hoping the Croke Park Classic will boost the sport’s popularity and encourage more youth involvement in Ireland.
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“I suppose it’s come a bit full circle for me,” Craig told the Centre Daily Times. “With a game like this, this is a tremendous opportunity for us. There are new fans that have never seen American football live before. You never know when someone’s going to think about wanting to play. For us, this has been fantastic.”
After marrying an Irish woman and moving to the Emerald Isle in 2003, Craig was looking for a way to feel closer to his roots. Although he didn’t play football in high school, he figured he’d give it a shot in a foreign land. Craig joined the Carrickfergus Knights, a team outside of Belfast. He played for seven years and remains involved with Ireland’s longest-running American club.
Craig’s roles have expanded in recent years. Now he helps run the league in which his team plays. The Irish American Football League has grown since its formation in 1984. Since the IAFL’s inaugural season in 1886, the league has expanded to 19 teams that are divided into three levels.
Nine teams play in the Shamrock Bow Conference — the country’s top competitive league. Recently, the IAFL added a development level to help ease players into the game. Craig said the IAFA will open a youth league for players 16-18 before the year’s end.
“It’s a good step for us,” Craig said. “I firmly believe that we need to get kids playing the sport younger. Traditionally you’d be a rookie at 26, 27 years old. And that’s OK but we need to start younger. It’s very different here but I think we’re getting there. What’s nice is, in our senior league, we have guys from 18 to 45 playing.”
With the exposure the American game has gotten in Ireland thanks to the Croke Park Classic, Craig is hoping the number of active players will increase and kids will want to come out for the American game younger.
In the last year, Craig has been helping officials of the Gaelic Athletic Association — the hosts of the Croke Park Classic. He traveled with them to State College when the game was announced last season before Penn State’s game with UCF.
Craig has also worked multiple Gaelic games, putting on American football demonstrations on Gaelic pitches during stoppages in play with help from the GAA. This past week, Craig spent time walking around Dublin’s Temple Bar district decked out in full Penn State gear.
“It was an opportunity to go around dressed in (quarterback Christian) Hackenberg’s jersey and sorts and pretend I was half the age I am in a Penn State uniform was kind of fun,” Craig said. “I haven’t seen or met anyone in Dublin over the last week that has said, ‘I haven’t heard about that game.’ And I think that’s a tremendous achievement on behalf of the GAA. They’ve definitely promoted this game well.”
Officials from the GAA confirmed that they are in contact with other American college teams to do another game in Ireland as soon as possible.
“(The IAFA) is very keen to see games played here because it helps profile the game and helps attract kids that never played the game before,” GAA Director General Paraic Duffy said. “We work very well with them. We’ve had a very good relationship with them and they’re very pleased to have the game here and we’ve worked very closely with them in terms of the organization of the game and meeting the requirements.”
Shortly before kickoff on Saturday, Craig crisscrossed through the hallways and lobby of Croke Park Hotel, working the phones and trying to help arrange last-second plans with locals and friends who were coming to the game. Hours later, he was watching as a majority Irish crowd went wild for Sam Ficken’s game-winning kick that propelled Penn State to a 26-24 win.
The game, which was met with some disdain by members of the press and Gaelic football teams as a highly anticipated All-Ireland semifinal football match was moved to a smaller stadium in Limerick due to the UCF-Penn State game, was perceived afterward as a hit.
The Irish Independent raved over the game, calling it a “truly awesome scene” while The Irish Mail ran a whole-page picture of Bill Belton sprinting through a tackler with the headline “A classic!” The same paper dedicated a big center spread with photos and story for the game.
Peter McKenna, the Commercial and Stadium Director for Croke Park, was eagerly anticipating the game and said he expected his Irish brethren to draw many parallels to American college football and Gaelic football — both of which are brutally physical, intense and rely on amateur athletes.
“This is a game that takes a little while for fans to get into it but it’s very, very technical,” McKenna said. “Far more technical than you’d imagine. And it’s just the quality of the athleticism. I think it’s personally, better exposed in the college scene. I think the college game is probably more open. I think the game is more exciting and it’s very close to our heart because all the players are amateurs.”
It’s always been close to Craig’s heart. He’s known of the beauty and spectacle of the American game for years. He’ll continue to work to make sure it gets seen more and more in his home away from home.
“I think it’s great as a Penn State alum to see so many Penn Staters over but as a quote, unquote local, I think it’s great that we are getting an opportunity to showcase the sport that we love so much,” Craig said. “Certainly from IAFA’s point of view, this was an opportunity for a high-level, great contest between two fantastic universities in one of the best stadiums in Europe. This is wonderful.”
The passing game is already clicking.
There were plenty of question marks with Allen Robinson gone as to who would emerge as a playmaker for Hackenberg to throw to. Geno Lewis showed flashes last season and came on strong in the latter stages of Penn State’s 26-24 win over UCF. Not only did Lewis recover after dropping two of his first three targets, he made a few circus catches and turned a short pass into an 18-yard gain to set up Sam Ficken’s winning field goal.
Redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton was terrific as he and Hackenberg displayed immediate chemistry. Hamilton lined up split out and in the slot and was able to outleap multiple UCF defensive backs on jump balls. He got separation for much of the afternoon and snagged nearly every pass thrown his way. Not bad for a player starting his first game.
The tight ends were reliable. Jesse James and Kyle Carter worked the middle of the field with James catching seven passes for 60 yards while Carter added two catches for 21 yards. Freshman tight end Mike Gesicki got involved with one catch for nine yards and was active in Penn State’s goal line packages. Freshman Chris Godwin also saw ample time and caught two passes for 13 yards.
Penn State’s offensive line will continue to be a work in progress with just one returning starter back. Still, the starting five of Donovan Smith, Brendan Mahon, Angelo Mangiro, Brian Gaia and Andrew Nelson had a serviceable afternoon against UCF only allowing two sacks.
But the rushing totals for the Nittany Lions stand out. Penn State was only able to manage 57 rushing yards on 28 carries and goal line offense was a struggle for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State ran six plays inside UCF’s five-yard line and scored just once.
“We’ve got to score on the goal line,” Mangiro said. “That’s something we’ve got to get fixed. It almost came back to bite us there. Luckily we had a great two minute drill.”
Hackenberg took a handful of hard hits, too. The sophomore quarterback was twisted to the ground in the third quarter and got up rubbing his right knee. He fired a deep touchdown pass to Geno Lewis on the next play but absorbed a hard hit on that play too. You never want to be picking your quarterback up off the ground, even if he is launching darts for scores.
Day To Remember
Hamilton won’t forget this game anytime soon.
Consider: It was the redshirt freshman’s first career game, he started, it took place in Ireland’s most historic stadium and Hamilton broke Penn State’s rookie records for catches (11) and yards (165) in a game.
Afterward, Hamilton was all smiles and said he learned a lot watching Allen Robinson make similar plays last season.
“We practice jump balls at practice all the time,” Hamilton said. “And we’re supposed to go attack the ball and get them points. We just know that when the ball’s in the air that they have to be ours. It’s a 50-50 chance on a 50-50 ball so they have to be ours.”
Day To Forget
UCF quarterback Pete DiNovo made his first start. And then was benched for the first time.
DiNovo was ineffective as UCF failed to do much with the ball when he was under center. The redshirt freshman completed just 3-of-8 passes for 18 yards in the first half. He was pulled midway through the game for Justin Holman who seemed to give UCF a boost immediately. Holman threw for a touchdown and ran in the go-ahed score with less than a minute to play. DiNovo may have to get comfortable on the bench for a while.
You Already Forgot
Trevor Williams made the unsung-hero play of the game when his desperate, second-effort tackle foiled a UCF kick return.
Jordan Akins caught Sam Ficken’s kickoff and burst through Penn State’s coverage unit. He got behind everyone and crossed the 50 looking to tie the game. One of Penn State’s fastest players, Williams gave chase from the far side of the field and reached out to bring Akins down but was fended off by a stiff-arm. Williams didn’t give up and dove at Akins’ ankles, bringing him down with a shoestring tackle at the Penn State 23-yard line.
UCF would get stopped at the goal line seven plays later and got no points of a drive that may not have even been necessary had Akins scored.
Hidden Stat That Matters
Senior linebacker Mike Hull led Penn State with 11 tackles and was an animal in goal line defense. Freed up by an aggressive front-five, Hull threw his helmet and shoulders around with fury, stopping UCF ball carries in their tracks from four to one yard out five times.