Game Day Observations: UCF
Game Day Observations is a recurring series from Onward State now in its fourth season taking you in the stands and analyzing the minutiae of every Penn State football game, home and away. These features will normally be posted Monday mornings, but jet lag is a bitch.
This game was inherently different than any other Penn State game I’ve ever attended — any game 3,000 miles away is bound to be so. But what made this game particularly unique for me was my “seat” for the game:
To make a long story short, and to protect the names of the innocent, Croke Park security is slightly less despotic than Beaver Stadium security. I didn’t have sideline credentials, but a friend and I found our way onto the pitch at the beginning of the first quarter in a completely valid and legal manner and we were never asked to leave. And so I watched the entire game next to the team on the sideline (you can see my feet in the video of the Geno Lewis circus catch, which happened right in front of me). Needless to say, my experience was almost certainly different than I expected walking through the turnstile, and dapping up Sam Ficken 45 seconds after his game-winning kick is not something I’ll soon forget.
Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled observations:
- I was only in Dublin for less than three days (law school — the stories are true), but it didn’t really seem like an international game. All of the pubs in downtown Dublin were filled to the brim with Penn Staters. The pub/drunk food district felt more like College Avenue than an international experience. I’d guess there were at least 15 Penn State fans for every UCF fan; it got to the point where Penn Staters were walking down the street saying “Welcome” to UCF travelers like it was a home game. I flew over by myself with plans to meet up with one or two recent graduates, but I ended up randomly running into no less than 20-30 people I knew from Penn State in only two nights out on the town. It had all the feelings of a bowl game, which was probably the point anyway. This is probably the most shared picture of the weekend, which shows just how massive Penn State’s traveling crowd was at the pep rally Friday afternoon:
- The Irish are remarkably friendly. Despite forcing its beloved Gaelic football out of Croke Park, everyone working in service — from the cabbies, to the hotel staff, to the bartenders — all seemed genuinely thrilled with their American visitors. In fact, the only dick I encountered on my entire trip was the U.S. customs agent on my return. This delightful game recap from the Irish media just about sums up the whimsy and good-naturedness I experienced during the entire trip. Even the Dublin airport went all out to welcome its guests.
- I was standing next to UCF’s purported pep band for a couple minutes when I noticed something odd: They were all older men with Irish accents. Upon inquiry, the band — equipped with UCF t-shirts and fight song music sheets — admitted that they were actually a for-hire Irish music group, and that UCF paid them to pose as their pep band in lieu of its actual band. Here, the UCF Mercenary Knight Marching Band:
- Penn State’s band, on the other hand, was made up of actual Blue Band students who traveled to Dublin with the team party. The Blue Band sent its seniors and a few juniors and sounded great as always.
- Most fans at the game were American, but the Croke Park people made it as easy as possible for the estimated 20,000 locals to understand American football with these penalty prompts, which appeared after every penalty call. With usually arbitrary penalties like holding and pass interference, I realized how confusing it must have been to understand half of the calls on Saturday.
- Penn State World Campus must’ve shelled out quite a bit of money this weekend. Large sections in the lower bowl were covered with advertisements. At a popular downtown pub, all the barmen were paid to wear Penn State World Campus t-shirts, and there were World Campus banners hanging from the ceiling. At least there was no sign of any Penn State Lives Here flackery…
- If James Franklin rolls into every game looking like this on Saturdays, I will be thoroughly impressed:
- Most of the X’s and O’s have been thoroughly covered since Saturday by more qualified people than me, but I’ll add a few points. Christian Hackenberg broke Zack Mills’ single-game passing record, and he’s likely to break them all by the time it’s all said and done. And unlike Mills, Hackenberg actually has some playmakers around him, as evidenced by Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton’s All-American performances. Hack proved to be adequately mobile behind the line of scrimmage, which is absolutely necessary with our young offensive line (which actually made some good plays, per Herb Hand’s Twitter film breakdown).
- I feel for Bill Belton (16 yards, 10 carries), who needs some room from the line to dance and speed through gaps to be at his best. That is something that he is unlikely to have with any consistency this year, or at least at the same rate as last year, when he averaged 5.1 yards a carry. Zach Zwinak (32 yards, 12 carries) is more of a power runner, which is probably more practically useful in this unit. Hopefully Penn State gets enough of a score buffer against Akron this weekend so Franklin can work this unit a little more. Despite winning 41-0, Akron gave up 148 rushing yards to Howard on Saturday in its opener, so take that for whatever it’s worth.
- Penn State’s defense is going to be fun to watch this year. The linebacker and defensive line corps totally shut down UCF’s running game, which forced the Knights to throw the ball. That proved to be somewhat frustrating, as Penn State’s secondary gave up five passes for more than 10 yards all in the second half, including three big plays for more than 30 yards. There’s a lot of depth here, and Jordan Lucas and Adrian Amos showed flashes of success, but this is probably the most obvious unit, sans offensive line, that needs to show significant improvement before Big Ten play. Akron’s Kyle Pohl threw 23-26 for 308 yards against Howard last weekend, and the entire unit threw for 400 yards, so it could be a reasonable test this weekend.
- It’s hard not to love the enthusiasm of two of Penn State’s new leaders. President Eric Barron picked up some of confetti to take home as a souvenir, and came up to anyone standing around wearing Penn State gear, unsolicited, just to have a friendly chat while waiting for the team charter bus to board. Athletic Director Sandy Barbour celebrated touchdowns with high-fives and hugs at every opportunity. I’m hopeful it’s symbolic a new level of engaged leadership at Penn State — at least, it’s hard not to be impressed so far.
- If there was any doubt, the football team knows the words to the Alma Mater without reading the scoreboard. So there’s no excuse for you not to know the words on Saturday, right? Right.
Until Saturday…Go State!