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Penn State Loses Heartbreaker To Central Florida 34-31

In a heartbreaker under the lights at Beaver Stadium, the Penn State Nittany Lions fell just short against the Central Florida Knights on Saturday, losing by a score of 34-31. The Knights had the upper hand throughout the entire game as Penn State never led, looking unstoppable at times on offense against what looked to be a strong Penn State defense in the first two weeks.

Blake Bortles, UCF’s starting quarterback, looked every bit as good as advertised in the game, exposing a weak Penn State secondary. Bortles completed 20 of 27 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns. Malcolm Willis intercepted him in the game for Bortles’ first pick in 232 straight pass attempts, but that was the only misstep in an otherwise stellar game for the Knights quarterback.

On the Penn State side, Zach Zwinak was the standout player on offense, totaling 129 yards and scoring three touchdowns on 21 carries for a 6.1 yards per carry average. Christian Hackenberg had a solid game as well, going 21-of-28 for 262 yards and one touchdown. But the offense got little help from the defense and couldn’t put enough points on the board to fend off the Knights’ prolific offensive attack.

“I told the kids after the game, ‘We’re with you and you’re with us through thick and thin,'” O’Brien said. “One thing I know about the guys in that locker room is they never quit. We’ll do better. We’ll keep improving. We made too many mistakes tonight and they capitalized on them. Bortles is a great player. All credit to Central Florida.”

The game opened with a seven minute UCF touchdown drive after they converted a 3rd-and-9 from the Penn State 35-yard line to keep the possession alive. Bortles passed to running back Storm Johnson on a screen for the four-yard score. But Penn State wasn’t going to lay down early in the game.

The Nittany Lions quickly drove to midfield before Christian Hackenberg hit Allen Robinson for a 44-yard gain that put the offense on the 10-yard line. Two players later, Zwinak took it in four yards for his first score of the game to tie up the score at 7-7.

Two drives later, the Knights responded. On the second play of the possession, running back Storm Johnson broke off for a 58-yard touchdown run to put UCF ahead 14-7 early in the second quarter.

Penn State’s next drive was a three-and-out that gave the Knights the ball on their own 11-yard line, but that wasn’t an issue for the unit. Lined up in the sildcat formation, wide receiver Jeff Godfrey took a snap and rushed for 49 yards to the Penn State 40-yard line. Three plays, two runs, and one pass later, the Knights were on the five-yard line when Bortles hit J.J. Worton for an easy score.

Taking over with 8:47 left in the first half, Penn State began what looked to be a series that would answer the Knights touchdown. After being bailed out by a pass interference call on third down, the Nittany Lions began driving.

Akeel Lynch was running strong. Hackenberg and Robinson were on the same page. But a sack gave the offense a long third down and Sam Ficken was forced to come on for a career-long 47-yard field goal that made the score 21-10 where it stayed going into halftime.

Penn State’s first drive of the second half went just 29 yards on eight plays before Alex Butterworth punted to the UCF 18-yard line. On the Knights’ third play, Bortles hit Worton with a bomb for a 44-yard gain. Two plays after that he found Josh Reese 25 yards downfield for a score that put UCF ahead 28-10 early in the second half.

The Nittany Lions weren’t going to go down without a fight. Hackenberg quickly responded with a big play of his own, hitting Robinson for a 46-yard gain before two Zwinak runs brought them into the end zone to make it 28-17. Zwinak ran in basically untouched from nine yards out for his second score of the game.

Needing a stop to turn the tides, the Penn State defense came up short. Central Florida quickly began moving downfield, picking apart the defense yet again. Soon enough, the offense was on the Penn State one-yard line facing a third down. Glenn Carson and DaQuan Jones stuffed a Bortles sneak. Johnson ran it in for a touchdown on fourth down, but a penalty backed them up to the five-yard line and they opted to kick a field goal to make it 31-17 late in the third quarter.

Penn State needed to start scoring points quickly if the team wanted to leave Beaver Stadium victorious. Hackenberg got the team to midfield with a 19-yard completion to Zwinak before Zwinak ran it another 38 yards himself to get to the 10-yard line. Hackenberg looked for Robinson on a fade route that he nearly caught, but a pass interference penalty moved Penn State two yards shy of the goal line and gave the offense a new set of downs. It took Zwinak three tries, but he made it into the end zone to cut UCF’s lead to just one touchdown.

The defense had two great chances to get the ball back on the next drive, forcing a 3rd-and-9 and then a 3rd-and-2 but the Knights converted both. They finally held off UCF at the Penn State 19-yard line, allowing a field goal that made the score 34-24 with 8:04 to go in the game.

Penn State’s next drive quickly made it to the UCF 29-yard line, but Zwinak fumbled on an off-tackle run, making things a lot more difficult for the Nittany Lions’ attempt to rally. The defense held strong after the fumble and the Knights botched their punt, giving Penn State the ball on the 25-yard line.

Hackenberg connected with Jesse James on the first play of the drive for a 17-yard gain. Bill Belton rushed for eight yards on the next play and then Hackenberg hit Robinson for a five-yard touchdown pass. Robinson’s defender was called for pass interference on the play but he caught it anyway. Penn State trailed by just three points with 2:51 to go in the game.

The defense had a shot at redemption after a poor performance against a strong Central Florida offense in the game, but they didn’t get that redemption. UCF converted a first down and was able to run out the clock and end the game with the Nittany Lions falling just short of what would have been a great comeback.

Game notes:

• Sam Ficken’s streak of 15 consecutive made field goals was broken up when he attempted a 57-yard field goal at the end of the first half. The ball fell about a yard short. Ficken said after the game that if you switched the two kicks he made, they both would have gone in, as his earlier attempt looked as if it would have been good from 60.
• The Penn State run defense struggled in this game after being lockdown in the first two matchups of the season. The front seven allowed 219 yards on 38 attempts for a 5.8 yards per carry average.
• The secondary was exposed in this game as Blake Bortles made the unit look like swiss cheese. He picked apart the pass defense and seemed to find an open man on just about every play.
• Trevor Williams tied for the team lead in tackles with six, but that’s usually not a good thing as a defensive back. The young corner got picked on all day and struggled against a prolific Central Florida pass attack.
• Penn State failed to register a sack in the game. That is certainly a credit to Central Florida’s offensive line, but if you can’t pressure a quarterback as good as Bortles, he’s going to make you pay.
• Zwinak was by far and away the primary ball-carrier in today’s game. He got 21 carries compared to five apiece for Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch and deservedly so as he was running great all day with the one exception being his costly late-game fumble.
• Allen Robinson had another stellar performance, catching nine passes for 143 yards and one touchdown. He is without a doubt one of the best wideouts in the country and he proves it on a weekly basis by making great plays after the catch.

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About the Author

Zach Berger

Zach Berger is a reporter and Onward State's Managing Editor Emeritus. You can find him at the Phyrst more nights than not. If he had to pick a last meal, Zach would go for a medium-rare New York strip steak with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and a cold BrewDog Punk IPA. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected] or on Twitter at @theZachBerger.

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