Certain “experts” wrote the team off before the game, stating that with so many issues concerning depth, a new coach, and the talent of UCF, there would be no way that the Nittany Lions could pull it off. But they did, thanks to the heroics of Sam Ficken, beginning the James Franklin era in style.
Christian Hackenberg delivered a statement performance, backing up all of the hype that came following his 2013 Big Ten Freshman of the Year campaign. He didn’t look like a talented freshman with loads of potential. He looked like a sophomore who could manage a game, and put an entire offense on his back. James Franklin let him do just that, riding the golden arm of Hackenberg throughout the entire game. Not only did he look poised with pressure in his face, he was able to guide the offense down the field in clutch situations making some flat out ridiculous throws, breaking Zack Mills’ single game passing record in the process. The star quarterback has been everything Penn State fans have hoped for since his signing back in 2012. This can only bode well for Penn State’s chances in the Big Ten this season, as he is undoubtedly one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.
This specific win gave players something that they haven’t been able to experience in a while: a bowl game-type atmosphere. This trip was special because it gave the players an opportunity to feel what it was like to play in the postseason. The traveling, festivities, and excitement in the community are all little things that made this game that much more special to Penn State.
As for the rest of the season, there are many takeaways from this game that can point where the Nittany Lions are right now, and what they must work on to get to that next level. Sure, the quarterback play was remarkable, but the position that surprised most was the play of the wide receivers. Everybody expected Geno Lewis to take on a bigger role and perform well, filling the void left by the departed Allen Robinson. Nobody, on the other hand, expected DaeSean Hamilton to have the breakout game that he had. His performance should scare opposing secondaries, as one of the best arms in the country now has another viable weapon to throw to.
The trio of tight ends — Kyle Carter, Jesse James, and Mike Gesicki — should also give opposing defensive coordinators nightmares, as they are all capable of making big plays. Despite not contributing as much as James Franklin hinted that they would, there is no doubt that their numbers will be called as the season goes on. That’s too large a percentage of the offensive output to be sustainable. This unit will need to step up to alleviate some of the pressure on the two wideouts; luckily, it is talented and capable enough to do so.
The offensive line had some positive moments, and played much better than anticipated. The unit is still very young, but was able to fend off the UCF front seven for most of the game. The unit must become more consistent, however. There were times when Hackenberg appeared to have all day to throw the ball, and also times where he was sent scrambling instantly. That could be an issue when Penn State has to play the likes of Ohio State’s standout linemen Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett, and Rutgers’ Darius Hamilton. The play of the interior guards will be critical to the success of Penn State’s run game, which was seemingly nonexistent save for a goal line score by Zach Zwinak. Hackenberg needs the run game to take some of the weight off of his shoulders, because right now he is the team’s entire source of offense.
Penn State’s defense played with a certain intensity and vigor that it didn’t seem to have at points last season. What stood out most was the nonstop motor from the guys up front. Anthony Zettel provided a lot of that energy, and could quietly become one of the best interior lineman in the country if his play continues. Stopping the run was another key factor in slowing down UCF’s offense, and Penn State did a solid job of keeping Knights’ running back Dontravious Wilson in check. The Big Ten is a league full of teams who love running the ball, and the Nittany Lions will force a lot of offenses to rely on their signal callers if they keep plugging running lanes.
The secondary was great down the stretch, with Jordan Lucas (two tackles and three pass breakups) playing some of the best football he’s played in a while. The physicality on coverage and staying glued to his man were what kept the UCF passing game honest. Remember, Franklin said the UCF receivers might be the best unit the secondary would face all year prior to the game. Lucas, Adrian Amos, and the rest of the secondary will be counted on heavily when they play notable passers such as Michigan State’s Connor Cook, Illinois’ Wes Lunt, and Michigan’s Devin Gardner. If Saturday was any indication, however, these guys aren’t too worried.
The Croke Park Classic gave us a lot to celebrate and discuss, from signaling the start of James Franklin era to watching Hackenberg break the first of what could be numerous passing records this season. It gave us actual game footage to analyze, and gave us a real first glimpse at the team’s potential, instead of just using scrimmages and practices to gauge development. But most importantly, it gave us all something that we’ve all missed so dearly: Penn State football.