Faith and Begorrah! (Thank God THAT’S Over!)

Add this to the PSU Trophy Case!
Add this to the PSU Trophy Case!

It couldn’t have been better. On a balmy 18C degree day in Dublin, two foreign universities with no Irish ties played American football on a converted Gaelic field in one of the largest stadiums in Europe.  The outcome of this one was in doubt until the final seconds, tickling the fancy of the promoters, who had already pocketed their money by that time anyway. In the end, it was Penn State 26, UCF 24, and the ancient cannons of Croke Park blew out blue and white confetti while the victorious Nittany Lions hoisted a majestic trophy named after Steelers’ owner and former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney.

The unlikely hero for the Nittany Lions was much maligned Sam “Shnozzola” Ficken, the Penn State football equivalent of a Timex watch: a kickin’ Ficken who takes a lickin’ but keeps on tickin’.

Losers’ stats-wise, it wasn’t close, but what should have been a huge advantage for Penn State was distorted by a few big plays and some sloppy turnovers. Penn State dominated the stats with 24 first downs to UCF’s 11 and 511 total yards to 246. Time of possession was decidedly in PSU’s favor, 34:07 to 25:53. Penn State punted only once versus four for the Knights. (Good thing, because red-shirt freshman Chris Gulla was a rookie playing his first game for the Lions.) It could have been much different if UCF had chosen the right starting quarterback, as you’ll see below, but hindsight is always 20-20.

So, it was close — too close. With seconds remaining on the clock, the Nittany Lions found themselves down 24-23, a Sam Ficken field goal attempt away from an opening game loss that would surely hit the much maligned Lions pretty damn hard. Penn State fans sat there crapping their pants as they watched Ficken, whose career has been anything but stellar in its consistency, step out to line up the 36-yard field goal. UCF fans, who probably haven’t followed the fickle fortune of Ficken were crapping their pants, too, fearing an almost certain disaster. (It’s easy to sit on the edge of one’s chair when one slides there.) This turkey, cynic that I am, had prophesied that if the game was close and it came down to a Ficken field goal, Penn State would lose. I was wrong. Ficken had the Luck O’ the Irish this day (how many times are you seeing that phrase used in today’s commentary), notching a perfect 4-4 FGs and 2-2 PATs. And this one was his crowning achievement. To quote an old beer commercial, “It don’t git no better’n this!”

A sturdy defense was no great surprise for Penn State homeys. The run defense certainly didn’t disappoint, allowing only 24 yards rushing. The pass defense looked better than we had seen last year, an encouraging sign, but they let a couple of plays get behind them for long gains when it appeared that they had their heads up their asses. In all, they made a couple of good breakups and were called upon to do more run support than last year’s mess, but no interceptions or earth-shattering defensive plays were seen. In spite of that, UCF’s starting quarterback, freshman Pete diNovo, was not successful at all against the PSU defense completing only three of eight passes and ending with a QB rating of 1.5. Had substitute Justin Holman, who took over at quarterback in the second half, played the entire game, it might have turned out differently. Holman was 9-14 for 204 yards with one TD and no INTs passing. He also ran for two TDs.

Guess who will start the next game at QB for UCF in two weeks against Missouri? I don’t think anyone in his right mind would guess diNovo.

Our concerns about the Penn State offensive line were on the mark, although Christian O’Hackenberg wasn’t on his back quite as much as this turkey had expected. There was one scare when he apparently twisted his knee and limped off the field, but he came back with a confident stride and assuaged our fears. So, Hackenberg wound up providing most of the offense behind this shaky O-line, sometimes running hard to evade sacks while at other times having a surprising (to me, anyway) amount of time, going 32-47 for a school record 454 yards in the air, including one pass for a touchdown.

“He was, too, out-of-bounds!!”

Approaching the climactic game terminus, leading up to Ficken’s last-second field goal, Hackenberg coolly directed a seven-play drive even as the current issue of the Penn Stater alumni magazine commemorated Kerry Collins’ 1994 “The Drive” against Illinois that preserved that undefeated season 20 years ago. For the most part, things went well, although there were some clock management issues and a couple of dubious play calls that will need to be addressed in Tuesday morning’s coaching session. Fortunately, all’s well that ends well!

Alas, the game excitement got into Hackenberg’s head and on several occasions Hack was seen to gamble with dangerous throws, two of which were intercepted. Fortunately, UCF’s offensive ineptitude kept the points off those turnovers down to a paltry three. Hack’s got to learn when to throw the ball away instead of forcing it. He better not be making such rookie mistakes as the season wears on.

The running game was another story. The Penn State OL seemed completely inept there. The troika of Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton, and Akeel Lynch combined for a paltry and ineffectual 55 yards. They just weren’t getting the blocks. Franklin and company adjusted to the OL ineptitude by switching to the passing attack early and coming back with the run at the outset of the third quarter, when Penn State had a one touchdown lead over UCF and perhaps thought they could sit on it. I guess ol’ Jimmy O’Franklin figured it was time to put this one in the can at that point and let the defense win it for him. Unfortunately, his counterpart, Georgie O’Leary, who had an annoying label hanging out of the neck of his sweater back during the game, had different ideas, swapping quarterbacks, going to the air, and ultimately coming back with three touchdowns to Penn State’s one TD and two FGs in the second half, leading up to the dramatic conclusion conducted by the Law Firm of  Hackenberg and Ficken.

Again, one has to speculate about what the outcome would have been with Holman in there the whole time. I’m sure George is crying in his beer about that. Back five months ago after the spring game, O’Leary said he thought he was going to go with Holman but he later changed his mind, giving diNovo the first start.

How to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? Ficken did it for Penn State, but for UCF Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel came up with a “well, at least we…” loser’s rationalization in this morning’s rag.

Quoting James Franklin’s post-game comment, “That’s a veteran team and veteran coach and what we did today means a lot for our program,” Bianchi opined, “In a round-about way, Franklin’s post-game comments represent a victory for the Knights. Think about it: When you hear the coach of storied Penn State talk about how much it means to beat UCF, it shows you just how far O’Leary’s program has come.”

In The Cave, we had good old-fashioned Irish bangers and mash, along with white pudding, blood pudding, back bacon, and dense Irish wheat bread slathered with Irish butter for our game breakfast. Lots of Sumatran coffee washed down the meal during the boring first half. Then the Irish coffee took over for the second half and the Guinness Stout followed. I gave the attendees each a bar of Irish Spring for party favors, and a great time was had by all.

Of the predictors on the Nittany Turkey Panel of Experts, Mike came out the best with his 27-20 PSU victory prediction that mentioned the Hackenberg factor. George O’Leary concurred with Mike. He was like,  He opined, “He’s what a college quarterback should look like. He delivered the ball on time and with great efficiency. We should have had our hands on him more, but he was the difference in the game.”

Well done, boys!
Well done, boys!

Mike’s gamble won straight up, with the spread, and nailed the over/under. The closing line was UCF – 1.5 with an o/u of 43.5. So, the “over” was the winning bet.

Meanwhile, this turkey was humbled once again, having predicted a 30-13 UCF victory and having taken the under.

K. John, true to form, has already expressed himself about the crappy officiating. During the off-season, he tallied all the missed calls in every Big Ten game, so this season we can look forward to an incisive yet highly subjective analysis of each call he thinks the officials blew, stated with the certainty that leaves no doubt whatsoever. (About what, I sure as hell can’t say!)

So, is this a good start? You’re damn right it is! This now makes my pre-season prediction of a loss to Akron look silly, but that damn running game is going to have to get in gear before the Big Ten season starts, damnit! I don’t really care about the accuracy of my predictions. I’m just happy that they’re on the right track. It’ll be an entertaining year.

Somewhere in Houston, Bill O’Brien’s Irish eyes are smiling.




  1. Joe says

    Well perhaps if you had read my basis for a PS win, you would have noted this statement-“We have Hackenburg, and they don’t-’nuff said.” Kudos to Mike for also identifying that same logic in picking PS.

    Seriously, this could have been a comfortable PS win but for a “turf tackle” preventing an easy PS touchdown (settled for a FG) and relying on Zwinich to run the wildcat inside the three on third down (another FG) and combine that with a couple of misplayed deep balls by the PS secondary that eventually produced TD’s for the Knights and this might have been a laugher, but it wasn’t. Actually if it hadn’t been for a well-timed right to left gust of wind, Ficken may have whacked the upright on what turned out to be the game winner (I swear it cleared the upright by 6″). But we won’t go there.

    So we had some questions answered to the extent they can be answered after one game:

    -We have some talent at WR/TE. It will only get better and missing ARob may not be that big a deal.

    -Actually the OL kept the vaunted UCF front seven at bay for pretty much most of the game and Hack seemed to have plenty of time to find his receivers. I expect there will be considerable emphasis on run blocking this week. It does look like this unit could be quite serviceable by mid season.

    -Nothing more to say about the DL/LB’s, (24 rushing yards). Even Barnes looked like he was back in his freshman year and Zettel looked unstoppable. Again we are one or two injuries away from the wheels coming off the wagon with these groups, but for know this looks like the good old days of PS’s defense.

    -Amos & Lucas looked as advertised-the rest had their moments but had a few brain farts on those two deep completions.

    -Hack doesn’t look like he missed a beat from the win against Wisconsin last year. Yeah a couple of throws he should not have attempted, but overall shazaam! If you watched the post game interviews, this kid is one cool cucumber and seems to relish every moment he’s on the field. It is also pretty obvious why he was selected as a captain while only a sophomore.

    -So it looks like the coaches can coach, put together a game plan (except for that one “Zcat” down on the goal line) and make adjustments when adjustments needed to be made. They also had the team ready and apparently not affected by the trip, the environment and jet lag. And I guess Vandy will miss Franklin and his staff; a 37-7 loss to Temple!!! Geez Louise!

    -Lots of youngsters got playing time. A very big positive.

    -I’ll let K. John explain what happened to the PS headsets and phones and provide the detailed stats on how we got jobbed by that AAC crew out on the pitch.

    So a win is a win is a win, especially one with such a spectacular ending (and that trophy is real class; take note Land Grant designers). More than anything else, though I think it gets this team one step closer to believing in themselves and the coaching staff and is going to produce tons of benefits over the balance of this season.

    • says

      Yeah, I read your pre-game comments about Hack, but you weren’t here in The Cave to lobby for your prediction being called out in print. Besides, Mike paid for the Irish crap we ate.

      Your assessment is fair. I was perhaps too harsh with the inept offensive line. I did indeed marvel at their ability to protect Hack, who I thought would be flattened several times during the game. Pleasant surprise, but on the run they suuuuuuuuuuuck!

      I think the coaches did OK considering that it was their first game to run. Helped to be mostly together coaching last year. I don’t mind trick plays but the direct snap to ZZ on the goal line was a bit capricious, to state it mildly. As well, they’re going to have to do better with clock management than they did at the end of both halves.

      I’m going to continue to hit on the secondary, though. I am not convinced that with a real passer and talented receivers running good routes, they’re not going to get burned when we hit the “meat” of the schedule. As Big Al says, having secondaries that suck is a Penn State tradition. Holman came in and moved the ball on them (with the help of the AAC officials, of course).

      Below, you will find that K. John has obliged you with an analysis of how we were punished for our sins by the AAC officials and why the final score should have been 99-0 in favor of PSU. But seriously, what I don’t unnerstand is why if they’re playing at a neutral site did they not have a neutral officiating crew? My guess is that it being opening weekend and all the crews in action, there were no spare Gaelic football league crews to impart an element of fairness. Or was it that it was a “home” game for UCF, so the easiest thing to do was schedule the officiating crew that would have run the game if it were played in BHS? I dunno. But if you listen to K. John, a Big Ten crew would have probably done us worse!

      I agree with your last paragraph. I am now thinking that they can beat #97 Akron (but watch out for Temple!). So, even this antisanguinarian turkey is encouraged!

      Heart Walk this weekend. Get your donations in by clicking the thermometer link on this page.


  2. BigAl says

    The biggest surprise for me is that the offense managed to replace Allen Robinson. I didn’t that the receiving corps would live up to expectations, but they did.

    I expected the defense to be a little better this year and the offense to be considerably worse this year. The former happened and the latter didn’t.
    State’s defense against the run was pretty good and they were able to maintain the improvement they showed at the end of last year. And Hack showed that he could get the ball to receivers who weren’t named Allen Robinson.

    But defending the pass is still a problem. A competent passing quarterback with athletic receivers can still carve them up. And the running game was non existent.

    The run blocking MIGHT improve over time – lets see how the line performs by the Northwestern game. IMO Run blocking takes more strength and ability than pass blocking (that might be rationalizing on my part since cut blocks were the only kind of run blocking I was any good at), so additional game experience won’t necessarily resolve the deficiency. If it doesn’t, the OL is going to be faced with a lot blitz packages in future games and Hack will be spending more time on his back.

    As far as the defensive secondary goes, sucking is a Penn State tradition and I don’t see any significant change there. The good news here is that only three future opponents – Indiana, Maryland, and Moo U – have quality quarterbacks who have proven that they can consistently hit open receivers And Maryland’s qb will probably be injured by the time State plays them.

    The next 2 games should show just how vulnerable State is to the pass. Akron has an experienced QB and stresses the pass, but their receivers aren’t really fast enough to get much separation. Rutger’s qb can carve you up when he has plenty of time to throw, but he’s a turnover machine when pressured.

    • says

      Yeah, run blocking takes more strength, ability, and (dare I say) “athleticism” than pass protection, but moreover, it requires more brains. There’s hope for these guys to mature into a decent unit if they can get their bodies and their brains up to game speed. What the hell do you expect from a bunch of freshmen and converted D-linemen with one experienced LT and a backup center named Wendy? It’s going to take four or five games to find out whether they’ll be competent to give the triumvirate of running backs some Lebensraum. So I think we’re on the same page with respect to the rookie OL.

      You get the big TNT shout-out for your characterization of the secondary. “Sucking is a Penn State tradition and I don’t see any significant change there.” Agree. All the pundits were proposing that the status quo would be changing this year. It won’t. DiNovo gave us hope, but Holman turned that hope into despair. Yep, they’ll suck again.

      Heart Walk is next Saturday. It will be over by 10 am, so I’ll be back in The Cave by noon for the mighty Zips. For donation link, click the thermometer on this page.


  3. K. John says

    Nothing subjective about it . Personal foul for taunting the invisible man? Anthony Zettel being tackled more than any Penn State player, one in the open field from behind which allowed a long pass setting a score. Offensive pass inference on a jam initiated by a defensive player costing State a first and goal. Failing to reset the clock on the second to last play after failing to clearly rule the player down almost allowing the clock to run out. I can keep going? Like I said, nothing subjective about it.

    • says

      Officiating is by definition subjective. How does one define a threshold for holding, for example. How does an official differentiate between an arm accidentally positioned around someone’s neck and a deliberate stranglehold? This ain’t Madden ’14 where the computer decides. This requires human reason and is subject to human error. So, yeah, everything about officiating is subjective.

      I agree that there were some bad calls. I’m not sure I agree with the conspiracy theory. It’s easy to sit on your ass in front of a TV screen with slow motion replays and jerkoffs in the booth haranguing you, analyzing every little body motion, but down on the field each of the seven officials has to watch a whole bunch of crap unfolding in split-seconds from one and only one angle, so they get a lot of credit from me for getting things mostly right. Seven guys watching 22 athletes who are coached to evade penalty calls moving at game speed ain’t easy. They’ll miss a few that the all-seeing sensors of the 12 high-def cameras covering all conceivable angles don’t.

      And of course, like all human beings, game officials vary in competence. You can’t measure that by any yardstick I know of. It is up to crew chiefs and the league to make the completely subjective decisions about who is going to call the game. They can do that with the aid of the aforementioned all-seeing high-def sensors, but it still boils down to human judgment, which is the consistent, subjective theme I’m pushing here.

      Yeah, they’ll blow some, and it will look like they’re favoring the other guys when they botch calls that don’t go the right way, but those breaks even out. I just don’t buy the crap that they’re constantly out to get us, whether they’re AAC or Big Ten. It’s paranoid and lame, but like a sucky secondary, it is also a Penn State tradition (if I may pervert a Big Al characterization).

      Yeah, a large contingent of Penn State fans consistently whine about officiating. It’s been going on for time immemorial. We separate out the ones that go our way and breathe a “whew” and then continue to whine about the ones that go the other way. Remember McCloskey’s Corner? Nahhh, you’re too young. Well, maybe not. That was only 32 years ago. But there have been many, many others — perhaps not quite so dramatically controversial or consequential — that went our way while not being indelibly etched into the biased mental record books of the conspiracy theorists.

      It’s funny, though, that if you look at the Big Ten blogs around the Midwest (and now the East), you’ll find just as many whiners about poor officiating sprinkled out among the other schools as you do at Penn State. Well, it’s not funny. It’s just sports fanhood. That’s how it’s supposed to work. I guess it’s also an indictment of Big Ten Officiating, but it also supports my point that officiating, good or bad, evens out and affects all the teams pretty much equally, good or bad. Grousing about it doesn’t change anything, but rationalization makes one feel better about things one can’t control.

      I’m not trying to convince you not to cling to your beliefs. That’s what religion is all about, giving one comfort in exchange for loyalty to the cause. Faith is never subjective. You either completely believe something or you don’t.

      Don’t stop believing.


      • K. John says

        Belief has nothing to do with. I only deal in facts. There are only two explanations for the officiating in the game, one is incompetence, one is bias. Given that no major call (a few minor) went in Penn State’s favor from the opening kick to the final whistle, while all major bad (as opposed to questionable which does imply subjectivity, but none of the major calls were subjective in any way) calls went the other way, you do the math. Incompetence would suggest Penn State receive a roughly similar amount of fortuitous calls.

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