Walt Moody: Nittany Lions show there’s still work to do

Last week we wondered just how good is the Penn State football team?

Central Florida provided the answer Saturday night, on both sides of the ball.

The marks for the Penn State defense were failing.

The Nittany Lions, especially the young secondary and the defensive line, got quite an education.

Not since maybe Mark Sanchez and Southern Cal in the Trojans’ 2009 Rose Bowl romp had a team systematically carved up the Nittany Lion defense like UCF quarterback Blake Bortles and his mates did in a 34-31 triumph.

Led by Bortles’ 288 yards passing, the Knights piled up 507 yards of offense. They racked up huge chunks of yardage with plays of 58, 49, 44, 36, 28, 26, 25 22, 21 and 20 yards among the 65 they ran. They needed to punt just twice in the contest mainly because they were 7 for 12 on third down conversions.

Bortles and his fine stable of receivers gave Penn State’s young defensive backs a hard lesson, in part because of the inefficiency of Penn State’s lack of a pass rush. Bortles finished 20 of 27 for 288 yards and three scores. He was picked off once when throwing into double coverage.

Bortles had plenty of time to look downfield and pick out a receiver. Even when Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler dialed up a blitz, the Knights had it blocked and Bortles took advantage of the single coverage.

“We really showed the world what we can do,” said UCF wideout J.J. Worton, who had seven catches for 101 yards.

The defensive line also had a tough day against the run. The Knights, led by Storm Johnson’s 117 yards on 17 carries, racked up 213 yards on the ground.

Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said he’d have to look at the game film for a definitive answer, but “it just looked to me to the naked eye that we made too many mistakes on both sides of the ball,” he said.

We’ll beg to differ a little there, Bill, and offer a better than passing grade.

Offensively, Penn State did move the ball pretty well against a team that had given up just seven total points in its first two games.

Nittany Lion quarterback Christian Hackenberg is the real deal. Aside from a few pressured throws, he was outstanding against the Knights, 21 of 28 for 262 yards and a score.

UCF coach George O’Leary genuinely surprised when informed in his postgame news conference that Hackenberg was a true freshman.

“I think he’s going to be outstanding,” the veteran head coach and O’Brien’s mentor said. “I think he has great poise and can make all of the different throws. He keeps his vision downfield and really handles the clock very well. He doesn’t get flustered back there. For a true freshman, he’s done a great job.”

There may be some arguments from down South, but Allen Robinson proved again that he is the best receiver in the country. Robinson had nine catches for 143 yards and a score and drew a couple of pass interference calls from overmatched UCF defensive backs.

The offensive line, which had struggled, protected Hackenberg well, allowing just one sack when nobody was open.

Zack Zwinak, who had yet to really get on track this season, may be remembered for a late fumble, but until then he was outstanding. He pounded his way to 128 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

“I thought there was a lot of big plays downfield by both sides — way too many,” said O’Leary of his assessment of the game. “The defenses on both sides should be on the Wall of Shame. There was way too many big plays given up, but give credit to the quarterbacks and the skilled athletes.”

O’Leary said there were plenty of skilled athletes on both sidelines Saturday.

“I think Penn State has skilled athletes,” he said. “I’d love to take a couple of them on the plane back with me.”

O’Leary said the difference between a national championship contender and a pretender really lies in the trenches.

“Everybody has skilled athletes,” he said. “The teams that separate themselves are the dominant offensive and defensive linemen. They’re the teams you see in the Top 10. They’ve got skilled kids, but they’ve got dominant linemen that can rush the quarterback and protect the quarterback. That’s what separates them.”

If that’s the case, O’Brien has the answer he needs when he looks at the film Sunday.

He has learned that his charges have heart, nearly rallying from an 18-point second-half deficit.

“It’s a lot of fun to coach these kids,” O’Brien said. “We’ll do better. We’ll keep improving.”

They have a gimmee next week against Kent State to work on some things before things get serious in the Big Ten. UCF certainly gave them some things to work on.