Penn State’s defense had few answers for a Central Florida offense that exploded for big plays and cashed in on short scoring chances at Beaver Stadium on Saturday night.
The Knights (3-0) used 16 plays of 10 or more yards with 10 of them going for 20 or more to hold off the Nittany Lions (2-1) 34-31 at Beaver Stadium.
“They’ve got a good football team,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “You have to give them a lot of credit. They’re well coached. We made too many mistakes tonight and they capitalized on them.”
UCF quarterback Blake Bortles completed 20 of 27 passes for 288 yards, three touchdowns and an interception to lead the UCF offense which racked up 507 total yards against Penn State.
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The Knights got their first crucial play on a third down that kept their opening drive alive. Bortles threw a 28-yard pass to Jeff Godfrey, who tiptoed along the sideline to help set up a four-yard scoring pass to Storm Johnson three plays later. Penn State would respond with a 10-play, 77-yard scoring drive that ended with a four-yard Zach Zwinak run, but UCF pulled ahead for good when running back Storm Johnson surged to a 58-yard touchdown run on the second play of UCF’s first second-quarter drive.
The Knights forced a punt and went right back to work marching down the field in big chunks.
Wide receiver Jeff Godfrey took a direct snap for a 49-yard gain on second down and William Stanback added a 21-yard run on the next play. Bortles hit wide receiver J.J. Worton twice on the drive for 15 yards, with five coming on a touchdown throw when Worton made a diving catch uncovered in the corner of the end zone. It gave the Knights a 21-7 lead to which kicker Sam Ficken responded with a career-long 47-yard field goal.
Ficken’s streak of 15 consecutive made kicks ended when he trotted out to try a 57-yarder at the end of the half. Penn State had to settle for the long try when quarterback Christian Hackenberg was sacked on second down at the UCF 40-yard-line with no timemouts and less than 25 seconds left. Hackenberg had to hustle back to the line to spike the ball setting up fourth down.
Penn State went just 29 yards on eight plays to begin the second half and had to punt it away to the UCF offense that gained more than that on its third play. Then, Bortles hit Worton for a 44-yard gain and Josh Reese turned a screen pass into a 25-yard touchdown when he juked his way through the Penn State secondary two plays later.
“We have a short memory,” safety Malcolm Willis said. “We’re going to look at the film (Sunday), figure out what we need to get better at and talk about the things that we did good and just try to do more of the positive things.”
Penn State got a positive boost from wide receiver Allen Robinson, who slipped behind the UCF secondary and hauled in a 46-yard pass from Hackenberg on Penn State’s next drive. Zwinak bulled his way for 13 yards, then added a nine-yard touchdown to cut UCF’s lead to 28-17.
After a Shawn Moffitt field goal pushed UCF’s lead to 31-17, Zwinak carried Penn State’s offense down the field on its next drive. He churned for 44 yards on four carries including a 38-yard run that set Penn State up with first-and-goal from the UCF 10-yard-line with less than a minute to play in the third. He stepped across the goal line untouched for his third score and cut UCF’s lead to 31-24.
But Bortles steered Moffitt into position to hit another kick. Bortles ran for eight yards and hooked up with Breshad Perriman for 44 more before Moffitt hit a 36-yarder that gave UCF a 34-24 lead. Zwinak lost a fumble at midfield six plays later and UCF took over with 5:43 to play and chewed up 1:55 with a six-play drive that stalled at midfield.
“It just looked like they stripped it out,” O’Brien said of Zwinak’s fumble. “He ran the ball hard tonight. I love that kid and we’re with him and he’s with us. It’s just a tough way to end it for him but we’ve got a lot more football left.”
And Penn State had a few plays left, too.
On third-and-nine from his team’s 43, Bortles threw incomplete and long snapper Scott Teal snapped the ball over punter Caleb Houston’s head and Penn State took over at UCF’s 25-yard-line. With 3:48 to play, Hackenberg went 2-for-2 and Bill Belton added eight rushing yards with one carry. Hackenberg hit Jesse James for a 17-yard gain to start the drive and found Allen Robinson with a fade to the corner of the end zone for a five yard touchdown.
But UCF ran the clock down to two seconds before punting to kill the remainder of the clock.