Penn State Football: Handing Out The Grades Following Penn State's 34-31 Loss To UCF
Penn State had its hands full on Saturday night and some issues that have yet to cost the Nittany Lions finally took their toll and cost Penn State a chance at victory. Ultimately these issues were too much to overcome and Penn State ended up falling 34-31 in a game that in many ways was not as close as the final score indicated.
Even in a losing effort though the Nittany Lions did some good things. So let's hand out the grades for this week's efforts.
Penn State's offense was the only real bright spot on Saturday night despite some flaws. The Nittany Lions were only 2-for-8 on third down thanks in large part to some poorly timed penalties that gave Penn State extended first and second down situations. Christian Hackenberg looked sharp all night going 21-of-28 for 262 yards and one touchdown. Hackenberg probably turned down a few easier reads but overall was able to keep Penn State in the game and was a large part of why the Nittany Lions even had a chance to win.
The Nittany Lions gained 193 yards on the ground due thanks to Zach Zwinak's 21 carry 128 yard and three touchdown effort. Penn State averaged 5.5 yards a carry and had a limited number of short carries that had hurt the offensive momentum earlier in the year.
Overall, of the things that resulted in Penn State losing on Saturday the offense's occasional struggles were far from the top of the list.
Standout Player: Zach Zwinak and Allen Robinson both take home the honors this week. Robinson had nine catches for 143 yards and a touchdown late in the game. Zwinak's 21 carry 128 yard and three touchdown effort was even more important from a scoring standpoint. Zwinak would win the award outright this week but Robinson had several big plays that set up some of Zwinak's scores.
On the one hand Penn State's defense made just enough plays that the Nittany Lions were able to stay within reach of UCF. On the other hand, Penn State's defense gave up 507 yards of offense and multiple long yardage plays and 219 yards on the ground after effectively making opponents' rushing attacks futile the first two weeks of the season. The fact of the matter is that Penn State's defense was faced with a good number of chances to stop UCF drives and didn't. The Knights' quarterback Blake Bortles is a pro in the making. Penn State's young cornerbacks were targeted all day and the Nittany Lions couldn't manage a single sack over the course of the entire game. A poor pass rush coupled with a talented quarterback is going to lead to bad results for a defense every time.
Overall, if there were yards to be gained UCF usually gained them. That's not to say Penn State didn't make a few important stop en route to a comeback attempt but when the stops really really needed to come they didn't. It's hard to know if these issues are indicative of what to expect the rest of the season or just a combination of factors that will improve over time. If Penn State gives up plays of 58, 49, 44, 36, 28, 26, 25, 22, 21 and 20 yards again in a single game though, it's going to spell just as much trouble.
Standout Player: While defensive end Deion Barnes was a ghost, his counterpart C.J. Olaniyan was extremely active -- tying the team lead with six tackles and one tackle for a loss. Malcolm Willis had five tackles and a key interception, UCF's first turnover of the year, which earns him an honorable mention.
Special Teams: B
Penn State's special teams weren't outstanding on Saturday night but weren't a area of concern either. Sam Ficken made a 47-yard attempt and fell just short on a 57-yard attempt that probably fell in the department of wishful thinking. Penn State's kickoff unit had a few missed tackles that were a source of concern. Alex Butterworth was average on his two punts. Considering how UCF was able to move the ball it may not have mattered if he had pinned the Knights deep in their own end anyway. Eugene Lewis was also effective as a kick return man averaging 26.5 yards a return which was aided by a 44 yard return in the second half.
Standout Player: Sam Ficken made his 47-yard attempt when Penn State really needed some points. His 57-yard miss doesn't really fall on him, and considering it had a chance counts in his favor.
Penn State won't beat the likes of Michigan and Ohio State just trying to out score them. While the offense looks like it is capable of putting up points and playing well, a defensive effort like the one the Nittany Lions had on Saturday will make it hard to beat Indiana in a few weeks let alone a loaded Buckeye squad on the road.