Penn State has lost games in more excruciating fashion.
They've lost games in which a kicker missed four field goals and an extra point, they've lost games in which they had what should have been a go-ahead touchdown taken away by an officiating crew that was either incomprehensibly inept or flagrantly corrupt, they've lost games on last-second field goals and goal-line stuffs and late-game turnovers and exhilarating comebacks that fell just tantalizingly short.
They've lost to better teams and they've lost to worse teams, but they haven't lost like this in a long, long time. They haven't struggled to perform even the most basic of duties against an assumedly inferior opponent. They haven't missed tackle after tackle, blown coverage after coverage, missed chance after chance, not like this, and the way I see it, there's two options.
Maybe we were wrong. Wrong to anoint Deion Barnes as the Big Ten's best young pass rusher, wrong to declare Mike Hull the next in the most impressive lineage in college football, wrong to celebrate a pair of young corners. Wrong to trust in this defense, which looked so good in spurts against the likes of Syracuse and Eastern Michigan--maybe we should've just realized that they were just Syracuse and Eastern Michigan.
The other, and more convenient explanation, is that this is all the coaching staff's fault. They failed to make the adjustments, failed to put these young Lions in their best position to succeed, failed to dial up the right play call that could have stifled Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson and the rest of this UCF offense, one that put up just 4 more points against such stalwart defenses as Akron and Florida International.
But allaying though that may be, it just wouldn't be true. UCF started a redshirt freshman left tackle, and neither Deion Barnes nor CJ Olaniyan could beat him. The Penn State linebackers were often in position to make tackles, but failed to wrap up, or lost contain after initially swallowing the rusher up. And UCF's receivers didn't make the drops or mistakes that this defense has long banked on opponents doing. We acknowledge that this strategy can fail against the likes of USC, circa the 2009 Rose Bowl. It simply can't against UCF. And worst of all, there was no sense of urgency until it was already too late.
There was some terrible officiating, of course; it wouldn't be a college football game without it. There was the phantom holding that negated a big gain on Penn State's last drive of the first half that would've set Sam Ficken up for a more makable field goal than a 57-yarder, a questionable pass interference that allowed UCF to continue a drive that would culminate in a field goal to put the Knights up two scores that would've had Bill O'Brien's second incident of televised profanity if there were a mic on the camera pointed at him after the call.
Bill O'Brien was as angry as we've ever seen him--besides those clips of him screaming at Tom Brady on a New England sideline--repeatedly at the refs, occasionally at his quarterback, but more often, like many of us, just mad at everything and screaming at the first outlet he could find. Because if it wasn't the coaching, then it's the bunch of kids he's stuck with, kids who almost went out of their way to give him, and us, agitation and heartbreak. The early struggles a year ago were side effects of a new coaching staff learning as they went along. This loss was a consequence of being outworked, outplanned, and outplayed, most clearly evidenced by the fact that Penn State couldn't convert a third down and UCF couldn't be stopped. And it would be embarrassing if it weren't so portentous.
It's tough to recuperate from a game like this, a game where we played a lower-division squad and weren't the better team. To their credit, this is a legitimately good UCF team, a 10-win team a year ago and a squad that would give any Big Ten team a run for their money. But they're still UCF--a program that hadn't ever beat a Big Ten team--we're still Penn State, and a night game at Beaver Stadium is still supposed to mean something.
Maybe we should consider this day one of the real sanctions period, then. Maybe this is the kind of game we're going to lose over the next few years. Maybe the horrendous tackling was due to the lack of practice doing just that. Maybe some more depth, depth we won't get for another five years, was just what Penn State needed.
Grades are coming soon. Along with them, probably some perspective. Let's just wallow in despair until then. Who's got Phish Food?
Actually, here's the good news: At least we've got BOB and Christian Hackenberg. Because if we're going to lose, we might as well lose in some shootouts. Much more fun that way, don't you think?
Quarterbacks: A-. Christian Hackenberg was not perfect tonight, not by any stretch. He too often held on to the ball for too long, taking coverage sacks and contributing to Penn State's clock management issues. He went through a prolonged stretch of malaise in the second quarter as UCF opened up the lead they'd never relinquish. But this was also a huge step forward for Hack, who took care of the ball better than he did in the first two games, not only not throwing an interception, but barely a single pass that even might have been picked. He found Allen Robinson early and often, and even when the two weren't hooking up to wreak havoc, they were drawing penalties left and right. And he finished extraordinarily strong. Blake Bortles might be the story coming out of this one, but Hack matched his stat line almost pass for pass. When Penn State scores 34 points, Penn State shold win.
Running Backs: B+. Last week, it was the Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton show, as the two quicker backs each had 100-yard outbursts against an overmatched EMU defense. Tonight, it was Zach Zwinak reminding us just how good he is, not just bulldozing UCF defenders for extra yards, but getting into space and rumbling for the big gain. If it weren't for his backbreaking fumble that essentially ended the game midway through the fourth quarter, this would've been a near-perfect performance. But Penn State's three-headed attack still put up 196 yards on 31 carries, damn good against any opponent.
Offensive Line: A-. As mentioned above, the running backs had plenty of room to run. Christian Hackenberg was sacked once, but it was a coverage sack. He generally had plenty of time to throw, and despite a plethora of early UCF blitzes, there was nary a free rush at Hack. Hard to ask for more. But I will, anyway: Zwinak, especially, had some gaping holes to run through, but there were plenty of stuffs, too, especially early. It took too long to establish the line of scrimmage, and by the time Penn State did, it was too late. That's the other problem with not trusting your quarterback enough to throw on first or second downs.
Defensive Line: D+. No sacks of Blake Bortles, and only a couple of hits or hurries. A few stuffs of runs at the line (and a huge goal line stand of a Bortles sneak), but plenty of lost contains and cutbacks poorly defended. Far too many missed tackles, especially on third downs. It's still early in this season, but Deion Barnes has got to step up. UCF was without its starting left tackle today, but you couldn't tell any difference. He should have been feasting.
Linebackers: D. Remember what I said about the defensive line? Basically that, plus a lot of poor coverage. Mike Hull was invisible. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was a nonfactor. Glenn Carson looked okay, I guess.
Secondary: D+. Trevor Williams got himself pulled in the second half, as John Butler shifted Adrian Amos back to corner. Amos might be a natural safety, but Penn State might not be able to get away without him at corner against the more talented offenses they'll face this season. Then again, it's not as though getting Malcolm Willis or Ryan Keiser on the field is so enviable, Willis' interception notwithstanding. Penn State's strategy in the secondary since time immortal has been to play close enough and dare the QB and his receivers to make tough throws and catches. UCF did just that, and Penn State never adjusted.
Special Teams: B. Sam Ficken drilled a 47-yarder and made it look easy; right down the middle, plenty of room to spare, never a question about it. He proved that he can miss, as his 57-yarder at the close of the first half fell short, but only just, and like his previous attempt, it couldn't have been straighter or more on line. Is he the best kicker in the Big Ten? Maybe. Alex Butterworth hasn't taken the same step forward, though he wasn't needed much tonight. Eugene Lewis broke one big return, but lost yardage by taking a few out of the end zone, and the tackling issues that loomed large all night bled over to the kick return units, too.
Coaching: D. Penn State went 2-8 on third downs, and in doing so improved their season conversion rate. I'm not sure what Penn State is doing wrong, but there has to be something. There has to be some answer to these issues. It can't just be talent. Oh, and gambling isn't always the right decision, as BOB learned when Hackenberg misfired on fourth and Penn State handed UCF great field position--not that the Knights needed it. The defense failed to make any adjustments as Blake Bortles dissected the secondary and Storm Johnson and co. ran away from (and out of the grasp of) would-be-tacklers. Clock management was poor again. And given how bad the Penn State D had been all game, what was O'Brien thinking kicking deep instead of trying an onside with under 3 minutes left?