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Take Aways From Penn State’s First Loss of the Season Against Central Florida

A disappointing defensive performance was the downfall for the Nittany Lions on Saturday evening at Beaver Stadium as they lost to Central Florida 34-31 in a heartbreaker. The offense produced all game long, but the defense struggled against a strong UCF offense led by quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson. Instead of staying undefeated, Penn State lost a winnable game to fall to 2-1.

Let’s take a look at what the first loss of the season tells us about this Penn State team:

The defense may not be as good as we thought…

Two weeks ago, after Penn State beat Syracuse in the season opener, I proclaimed that the defense is “really good.” And the defense certainly has the potential to be really good if the unit consistently plays as well as it did in the first two games, but Saturday night proved that it certainly is beatable.

Penn State allowed a total of 507 yards and 34 points. The pass defense was already shaky, so it’s no surprise that a great quarterback like Blake Bortles was able to pass for 288 yards and three touchdowns. But the surprise in the game was that the run defense failed too. A strong front seven lead by DaQuan Jones, Mike Hull, and Glenn Carson got burned for 219 rushing yards on 38 attempts for a 5.8 yards per carry average.

UCF is no slouch of a team. The Knights are the toughest non-conference opponent that Penn State will face this year and one of the toughest teams Penn State will face overall. But it is still disappointing to see the defense get beaten so badly on Saturday. They failed to make tackles all game long and just looked lost dealing with UCF.

…Especially the pass defense.

“You gotta do your best to get what you have to the field,” defensive coordinator John Butler said when asked about the tackling issues. “You don’t want to take it to 57 [scholarships] ‘cause you’re tackling in practice. You know, I think we drill it, just think we have to keep drilling it. We knew what we needed to do to stop [Bortles] and to be honest with you, we couldn’t stop what we needed to stop.”

With cornerbacks Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams struggling against Central Florida receivers, Butler made the decision to move Adrian Amos to corner mid-game. Amos previously played corner until this year when he was moved to safety and is arguably the best player in the secondary.

“It was just a coaches’ decision to try to just get a little more experience in [at cornerback],” Butler said. “We felt like they were throwing the ball successfully to the field. So we just moved Jordan into the field and put Adrian back into the boundary.”

The offense is even better than it was last year. And that’s with a true freshman quarterback.

Against a tough UCF defense, Penn State racked up 455 yards of offense. The running backs combined for 193 yards on 35 carries (5.5 yard per carry). Christian Hackenberg threw for 262 yards and a touchdown while completing nearly three-quarters of his passes.

“I’m definitely more comfortable with two games under my belt, now three, so you know, we’ll just move forward, try to get better and prepare for Kent State,” Hackenberg said.

And Zach Zwinak is a monster.

Zwinak was running like he did in November of last year when he hit his stride, and it’s still September in case you don’t have a calendar. He was dragging bodies all over the field on Saturday. He amassed 128 yards on 21 carries while scoring three touchdowns. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry. Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch got a couple series in the game, but Zwinak was the workhorse and will be the team’s primary running back if he continues to play as well as he did on Saturday.

“He had a good game,” said tackle Donovan Smith. “He’s Zwinak, I mean, you’d expect that from him. He put forth a lot of effort out there.”

Allen Robinson is one of the best receivers in the country.

Through three games this season, Allen Robinson has 405 receiving yards and three touchdowns — one in each game. Keep in mind that he missed a half in the opener, so he’s averaging 162 yards per four quarters. He’s averaging 17.6 yards per catch, and many of those yards come after the catch. He has caught a couple bombs, but he’s also made some big plays by evading tacklers and accelerating downfield.

Robinson is making things easier for Hackenberg and helping him avoid some growing pains that he might be dealing with if he didn’t have such a stellar top receiving option. He’s the best receiver that Penn State has had in a long time.

Sam Ficken might be confident, but Bill O’Brien is confident in him too.

Late in the second quarter, O’Brien sent Ficken out to attempt a 57-yard field goal attempt. Ficken had set a career record earlier in the game when he hit from 47 yards out. The fact that O’Brien felt comfortable putting his kicker out there from that distance says a lot about how confident he has become in Ficken’s play. He almost made the field goal too, falling just a yard or so short as it was accurate.

“Unfortunately on that 57-yarder I got a little under the ball and it just ended up being a yard or two short,” Ficken said. “I think if the kicks would have been switched, they both would have been good. Obviously, I’m a lot more confident [than I was this time last year.] Every kick I take I feel like I should make.”

About the Author

Zach Berger

Zach Berger is a StateCollege.com 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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