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.”
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.