When I worked for UCF back in the 1980s and 1990s, the acronym UCF stood for “U Can’t Finish”, at least in the minds of the ever creative student population who felt that because not enough classes were offered in their major subjects they could never finish their degrees. I had nothing to do with that, being safely ensconced in the Department of Computer Science, in a medium-sized state university that had more parking spaces than dorm rooms and a Division II football team that eventually became a Division I-AA football team that was the perennial whipping boy of such I-AA powers as Georgia Southern and Samford.
Even off the football field we got no respect. I once was at a conference in Monterey, California, talking with a colleague from Stanford. Noting the “UCF” on my name badge, he asked, “What’s UCF? UCal-Fresno?” Hell, there isn’t even a UCal-Fresno. UCF was so obscure that a made-up university seemed much more plausible to The Cardinal.
The University’s president at that time, Trevor Colbourn, maintained that two of his most important missions were to give the school a new name (it had been Florida Technological University) and to establish a football team.
Be proud, Pat Schuster!
Much has changed since way back when. The University is now one of the largest public universities in the country, the football team has moved up through minor FBS conferences to what is now known as the American Athletic conference, that being the remnants of the Big Least, there are now lots of dorms on campus, and you still can’t finish. UCF is currently the largest university in the nation in terms of undergraduate enrollment, the largest university in Florida, and in 2003 held the distinction of being the fastest-growing university in the United States. But this post has nothing to do with academics; we’re here to discuss issues relating to the culture of football — namely, who the hell is going to win the football game between the UCF Golden Knights and the Penn State Nittany Lions.
The Knights vs. the Lions
On Saturday UCF will travel to Beaver Stadium to take on the slightly favored home team from Happy Valley. Both teams are 2-0 and both are coming off of blowout wins over patsy opponents. Both are minimizing the import of this game but both are scared shitless of losing. (You can tell by how the players nervously refer to it as “just another game” in public interviews.)
UCF’s last game was a 38-0 win over the hapless Florida International Golden Panthers. In a very golden game with respect to everything except for marquee power the Golden Knights dominated on the scoreboard and rang up 390 total yards, of which 225 were through the air. Their dangerous quarterback, Blake Bortles, was 12-19 for 214 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Bortles also had four carries for 22 yards and one touchdown on the ground. This guy is on a lot of preseason award watches and deservedly so. Last year he amassed over 3,300 yards total offense, including eight rushing touchdowns and 25 passing touchdowns, with only seven interceptions. He is only a junior and at 6’4″ / 227 lbs he’ll be a treat to watch.
A big question mark, of course, as I have mentioned several times thus far in this young season, is the Penn State defensive secondary. I have great confidence in DaQuan and company up front putting pressure on the quarterback but should that pressure fail I have no great amount of confidence in the secondary being able to prevent ultimate disasters. They have not yet needed to prove themselves, but they will have to do so in this game. I think the word athleticism is typically used here, although no one still has any idea just what the hell it means. But I digress.
On Penn State’s side of the ball we have a sparkling young virginal quarterback in Christian Hackenberg, a sparkling middle-aged receiving corps led by potential Pro Bowler Allen Robinson, a running game that looked good against one of the worst defenses we’ll ever play against, and an offensive line that is still a mighty big “I dunno”. The problem with sparkling young virgins is that until that cherry is ancient history, they tend to make sparkling young virginal mistakes in spite of being multi-talented diamonds-in-the-rough. (Boy, the damn metaphors are flowing like a river of diarrhea during a colonoscopy prep, aren’t they?) Were it not on the way to a blowout win, that Hackenberg fumble last week would have Bucknerian overtones, as it were.
There is some good individual talent on the offensive line, but the line has not been completely in sync in the past two outings with respect to either the running game or pass protection. They haven’t played or practiced together all that much, so there remains hope for significant improvement. That bunch of coyotes has to come together for this game. The running game against Syracuse was anemic, and while the Lions had 251 yards against Eastern Michigan, well, it was Eastern Michigan, a team that allowed 202 rushing yards against Howard — yeah, Howard. They have also given up a lot of sacks, and the third-down conversion percentage is terrible, just 2-26, the worst of all FBS teams. The offensive line must do better.
(Unfortunately, the NCAA stats site is down at the moment, giving me just a header over a blank page. Therefore, when I use mathematically precise language like “a lot”, you are exhorted to look up the actual number and assume that whatever it turns out to be is precisely what I had in mind.)
Penn State’s turnover record has been abysmal as well. Some of that goes right along with having a rookie quarterback (and there has never been an uglier fumble than Hackenberg’s in the opening stanza against the EMUs — but I’m over it, I think), and some of that goes right along with having a green offensive line, but whatever it goes right along with, it’s got to damn well stop! Meanwhile UCF has protected the ball perfectly, not having turned it over a single time yet this year. Penn State has six turnovers thus far (three fumbles lost and three interceptions). The Nittany Lions must match perfection with perfection in this game … or else!
I hope that the Sanguinarians do not pooh-pooh UCF as a competitor, because this is going to be the toughest game of the year thus far, which in this turkey’s opinion will rank among the top three toughest games this year. The student whiteout, the home field (with a new and innovative, albeit puzzling, striping scheme), the noise, and the certain je ne c’est quoi of playing in the second largest stadium in United States college football ranks certainly tip the scales in Penn State’s favor. However, intangibles aside, the Golden Knights are strong competitors. Break out all the sportsmediacrap words like athleticism and physicality for this one. Furthermore, you’re undoubtedly aware that it is what it is.
Faith and Begorrah!
The coaches know each other. Couple of Irishmen: O’Brien and O’Leary. That’s got to make it a pretty even match-up, except among the Sanguinarians, for whom anything connected with Penn State has to be better. Besides, O’Leary faked the Masters degree from University of New Hampshire on his resume when he applied for the head coaching job (and potential associated sainthood) at Notre Dame. That’s worth at least two or three points, don’t you think? On the other side of that tenuous coin, O’Brien worked for O’Leary at Georgia Tech. Take back those two or three points, damnit!
(Remember that I’m dictating this, not typing it. Any typos (dictos?) or screw ups of any kind can be credited to my software, not to me. But I’ll take full credit for snarky comments. Wait! Give some of the credit to the pain-killing drugs given to me by the nice man at the hospital in the aftermath of my hand breakage incident.)
So how’s the weather, already? Saturday’s weather promises to be perfect for football, mostly sunny and cool with a high of 65°F. UCF is used to playing in 115° sweltering Central Florida heat but I don’t think this ice box weather will affect them negatively at all. If anything, both teams will benefit equally from the nice weather.
I haven’t yet mentioned special teams; with respect to Sam Ficken, I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. This turkey finds it particularly difficult to fathom the sudden and dramatic improvement in Ficken’s kickin’. But I’ll take it! Some of the other aspects of PSU special teams’ play are coming together, too, but it’s hard to tell with only a mistake prone Game One against Syracuse followed by a lopsided contest with a complete patsy, the Brick Dicks, under their belts, so to speak.
Over in Orlando, UCF’s kicking game is unspectacular but effective. We’ll call special teams even-steven, just for the hell of it.
UCF comes into the game healthy, while as you know, Penn State has suffered some significant injuries, most notably to tight end Matt Lehman, who is out for the year with a knee injury.
The Shillelagh Bowl
So, hey, does the fact that I worked for UCF and have lived in Orlando almost as long as UCF has existed render me any more competent at picking this game than I would be if I hadn’t had the close association? Hell no! So why did I mention it? Because I felt like it! With that bit of bluster, it is now time for the Official Turkey Poop Fallible Forecast for the 2013 edition of the Penn State UCF game — the Shillelagh Bowl. I’m sure you’re all aware that next year the game will be played in Dublin to provide a wonderful stage for the two leprechauns who are coaching these teams, one of whom is so Irish that he was even a Notre Dame coaching wannabe but nevergottobe. The trophy for that 2014 Dublin extravaganza will be unveiled during halftime at this game. Will it be like the Land Grant Trophy, an abomination that scares small children? You’ll have to wait and see whether the Big Ten network even covers the damn unveiling but I’m sure you’ll find pictures of it soon enough. Let us hope that it is not another Land Grant Trophy, but wait! Is this intended to be an ongoing series or is this a one time trophy?
At The Cave, we’ll be making Irish Stew, drinking Harp’s and Old Bushmill’s, and singing Danny Boy to no one in particular. If my broken hand hurts, we’ll just say WTF and order pizza or borsht or something.
Official Turkey Poop Prediction
Okay, let’s get down to predicting. The turkey is flying high – 2-0 straight up and 2-0 against the spread, also 2-0 correctly picking over/under. Big deal! It’s early. The spread for this game has Penn State favored by 5 1/2 points, with an over/under of 50 1/2 points. This suggests the final score will be something along the lines of 28-22, at least in bettors’ minds, with PSU on the winning side. While the turkey has no great loyalties to UCF and would love to hang his hat on another Penn State victory, it is my belief that in the inimitable words of Frank Gifford, as sarcastically chronicled by Howard Cosell, “Turnovers’ll killya”. I think it is too much to ask of the young team that has suffered six turnovers against lesser defenses to mend its ways in time for this game, and I’m thinking that turnovers will cost Penn State at least a touchdown, while continued suckage on third down will afford UCF too damn many opportunities to move the ball. Therefore, I’m going with my erstwhile employer. UCF 31, Penn State 24. Take the over.
The turkey will return after the game sometime with his post-game comments about the UCF game and will eventually take a pontificatorial look forward to the next Golden opponent, the Golden Flashes of Kent State. After that, there will be just one more golden opponent this season, the Golden Rodents of Minnesota.