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Penn State Football: Central Florida nips Nittany Lions, 34-31

by on September 14, 2013 8:52 PM

Close. Twenty-seven yards close. Three points close.

Penn State’s offense was close to closing the deal and outscoring Central Florida Saturday night in Beaver Stadium.

Far. Too many Central Florida runs and passes that ended far from the line of scrimmage far. Ten plays over 20 plays far.

Close, but yet too far.

Offensively, the Nittany Lions scored on three of their final four possessions – going 75, 81 and 25 yards in just 364 seconds and all of 14 downs.

It was the drive that they couldn’t finish that ultimately had a significant hand in Central Florida's 34-31 victory. That drive had already traveled 53 yards, but it ended – along with the Lions’ hopes of handing their coach, Bill O’Brien, a win over his mentor – when running back Zach Zwinak fumbled and lost the ball. When the ball hit the ground and UCF’s Sean Magg recovered it, with 5:53 remaining and Central Florida ahead 34-24, Penn State not only lost the ball, but for all intents and purposes also the game.

Yes, Central Florida did give the ball back to the Nittany Lions after a bad snap sailed over the head of its punter, Caleb Houston, and the resulting shanked punt gave Penn State possession at the UCF 25.

And yes, the Nittany Lions quickly and efficiently turned the gift into a 17-yard pass from quarterback Christian to tight end Jesse James. An eight-yard by Bill Belton and then a five-yard scoring pass form Hackenberg to Allen Robinson. Sam Ficken’s PAT pulled Penn State to within 34-31. 

That was the closest the Nittany Lions had been since the game was tied 7-7 in the first half. But UCF (3-0) held onto the ball for the final 2:51, to take the win and give Penn State its first loss of 2013, after starting the season with a 23-17 win over Syracuse and a 45-7 win over Eastern Michigan.

“To the naked eye, it looked like we made too many mistakes on both sides of the ball,” O’Brien said. “We fumbled there at the end. We were rolling pretty good then. We can't do those things. We didn't do a good job tackling. We have to do a better job coaching. Any time you lose, it's a team loss. Everybody's in it together."

A big chunk of the reason Penn State lost had to do with the big plays it surrendered to UCF's big-play offense. UCF had a dozen plays from scrimmage over 10 yards, with 10 of those over 20 yards -- "chunk plays," O'Brien calls them. Central Florida's offense had runs of 21, 22, 49 and 58 yards, with pass plays of 20, 25, 26, 28, 36 and 44 yards.

Meanwhile, Penn State's offense managed just three plays over 20 yards -- catch-and-runs of 44 and 46 yards by Robinson, and a 38-yard run by Zwinak. Overall, UCF outgained PSU 507 to 455.

Zwinak led Penn State with three TD runs and carried 21 times for 128 yards, while Hackenberg completed 21 of 28 passes for 262 yards, with the TD pass. Robinson caught nine passes for 143 yards.

For UCF, coached by George O'Leary -- O’Brien’s former boss at Georgia Tech -- quarterback Blake Bortles completed 20 of 27 for 288 yards and three TD passes, with one interception. Storm Johnson ran 16 times for 116 yards, while J.J. Whorton had seven catches for 101 yards.


Just 1:25 into the fourth quarter, Penn State pulled within a touchdown, when it went 81 yards on seven plays in 3:55 to trail 31-24. Zwinak’s one-yard TD run was his third of the day. The drive was all ZZ – he ran six times for 44 yards and grabbed a 19-yard pass from Hackenberg. UCF responded as it had all night – with another long drive. UCF took 10 plays to go 53 yards in 5:25, culminating its drive with a 36-yard field goal by Shawn Moffitt to go ahead 34-24. Penn State's drive where Zwinak fumble followed.

Penn State received the ball to start the second half, but after a pair of first downs the Lions were forced to punt – a 32-yarder by Alex Butterworth. Central Florida quickly capitalized, going 82 yards in just 2:23 and five plays on a scoring drive capped by a 25-yard TD pass from Bortles to Josh Reese. After a PAT by Moffitt, UCF led 28-10.

Penn State continued to respond to UCF’s body punches, going 75 yards in just four plays and 89 seconds to pull within 28-17 on a nine-yard TD run by Zwinak. The drive's big play was a 46-yard pass from Hackenberg to Allen Robinson.

On its next possession, UCF came right back, with a 22-yard run by Storm Johnson and a 36-yarder from Bortles to Reese. Faced with a first-and-goal from its own 5, Penn State’s defense stiffened and held UCF to a 22-yard field goal by Moffitt. UCF led 31-17 at the end of the third quarter.

FIRST HALF: Central Florida 21, Penn State 10

After winning the coin toss and deciding to receive, Central Florida took the opening kickoff and methodically picked apart the Nittany Lions’ secondary on its way to a 7-0 lead. Bortles completed 6 of 7 passes for 65 yards, including a 4-yard TD pass to Johnson and Moffitt’s. The 6:53 drive covered 89 yards in 13 plays.

Picking primarily on sophomore corner Jordan Lucas and redshirt freshman corner Trevor Williams, Bortles completed passes of 9, 9, 14 and 28 yards on the opening drive. Penn State’s defense opened up with Stephen Obeng-Agyapong in place of Mike Hull at linebacker. Hull came in for limited action later in the half, making two quick tackles early, then appeared to be hobbled by a knee injury that kept him out of last week’s Eastern Michigan game.

Penn State responded with a 10-play, 77-yard, 3:41 scoring drive capped by a 4-yard run by Zwinak. Hackenberg was 3 of 5 for 56 yards on the drive, with a 44-yard reception over the middle by Robinson the big play on the drive. A 2-yard pass from Hackenberg to fellow freshman Adam Breneman on fourth-and-2 from PSU’s own 45 kept the drive alive. (The conversion upped PSU’s fourth-down mark to 5-for-5.) Zwinak carried the ball five times for 15 yards. The PAT by Ficken tied the game, 7-7.

Going for it on fourth down again early in the second quarter did not work as well for O’Brien. On a fourth-and-6 from the UCF 35, Hackenberg short-hopped his throw to wide receiver Geno Lewis. UCF took over and just two plays later Johnson ran 58 yards – much of it along the UCF sidelines – for a touchdown. Moffitt’s PAT gave UCF a 14-7 lead.

After a Penn State three-and-out, UCF took over its own 11-yard line and went 89 yards in eight plays and 3:17 to up its lead to 21-7. On the drive’s second play, wide receiver Jeff Godfrey took a short snap from center and raced 49 yards. William Stanback added a 21-yarder on the very next play. Bortles capped the drive with a 5-yard TD pass to Worton.

Penn State answered Central Florida again, with a 47-yard field goal by Ficken. The field goal extended Ficken’s school-record consecutive FG streak to 15. The Nittany Lions’ offense hurt itself several times on the drive, with a holding penalty on offensive tackle Garry Gilliam and a procedure call on wide receiver Brandon Felder, in addition to a sack of Hackenberg. As it was, PSU went from a first-and-1 to a third-and-20. That’s why, by the time halftime arrived, Penn State was 2-of-31 on third down conversions for the season, worst in the FBS.

O’Brien had to take a time-out before Ficken kicked the field goal, as PSU had only 10 players on the field. (The culprit was Breneman, who lines up at the right end on the FG unit.)

Penn State was hit by another freshman mistake at the end of the first half, when the Lions had the ball at the UCF 40 with less than 30 seconds in the half. With excellent protection, Hackenberg held onto the ball as the clock ticked down. Then, when protection finally broke down, as he was being tackled Hackenberg tossed the ball to the ground and narrowly avoided a intentional grounding penalty. As it was, with just two seconds remaining, Ficken came in to attempt – and fall short on – a 57-yard field goal attempt.

At halftime, Bortles was 12 of 16 for 120 yards, with one interception (by PSU’s Malcolm Willis) and two TDs, while John had eight carries for 87 yards. UCF had 289 yards of total offense. Hackenberg was 11 of 17 for 131 yards, while the Lions’ trio of backs – Zwinak (34), Akeel Lynch (32) and Bill Belton (28) -- evenly carried the rushing duties. Robinson had five catches for 77 yards.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
Next Article
Penn State And UCF Live Blog: UCF Wins 34-31
September 14, 2013 5:00 PM
by Ben Jones
Penn State And UCF Live Blog: UCF Wins 34-31
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