This game was alternatively furiously exciting and terrifically frustrating; it was, at times, completely fucking bonkers. It featured some of the worst analysis you'll ever hear, and a series of puzzling calls by an astonishingly clueless officiating crew. We all suffered a thousand tiny heart attacks, and equally as many little moments of outright jubilation. In other words, despite taking place across the Atlantic Ocean, and kicking off at 8:30 AM Eastern, it was pure college football, uncut and undistilled and maddeningly perfect in its imperfections. And above all else, it was a win, a win over a UCF team that returned a whole lot from a 12-1, Fiesta Bowl Championship season, a win to kick off the James Franklin era, a win to justify waking up so damn early on a Saturday morning.
It was not a win that was easy, but it was a win that was earned.
Earned, of course, with more than a little help from UCF. It took George O'Leary until the second half, until Pete DiNovo had led UCF to 3 points and 35 total yards and a total and pervasive incompetence in the first half, to realize that Justin Holman was his best quarterback. We are all much obliged for his judgment, especially because this Penn State offense, despite featuring one of the best passers in the country, and a talented and deep cadre of skill players, couldn't help but squander opportunity after opportunity. A first-and-goal from the two-yard line ended in three points. After breaking free of a defender, DaeSean Hamilton tripped over the 20-yard line. Immediately following a Penn State takeaway, Chris Godwin coughed up a fumble. The moments between were beautiful and glorious--here was Eugene Lewis breaking free, there was Eugene Lewis making the early favorite for catch of the year on a tipped ball, and everywhere was DaeSean Hamilton, doing his best Allen Robinson impression.
But there was no reason for this to come down to a 4th-and-10 from Penn State's 46, with under two minutes left and UCF driving for the win. There was no reason for Holman to throw a laser, then take it in a play later and give the Knights a one-point lead with 73 seconds left. There was no reason for Hackenberg to have to lead his team on the kind of game-winning drive that defines the career of young quarterbacks.
But after 8 months without football, a thriller like that was a whole lot of fun, wasn't it?
Two years ago, the second game of the Bill O'Brien tenure was a whole lot like this one. Penn State manhandled Virginia early, but couldn't cash in with points. They gave up the lead late, but rallied with the clock ticking down. They gave Sam Ficken a chance to be the hero.
He couldn't cash in then. Today, he did. And he kicked off James Franklin's Penn State career--quite literally--with a hard-fought win. Ficken's redemption came in the 2012 Wisconsin game; this, perhaps, was his ascension. After two up-and-down seasons, maybe his 4-for-4 today is a harbinger of consistency.
There were other heroes, in this one: Anthony Zettel was everywhere--stout at the point of attack, ferocious in the backfield, wrapping up ballcarriers, hitting passers, fitting in remarkably well in his first game as a defensive tackle. After a largely invisible 2013, Deion Barnes was a wrecking ball, bringing pressure off the edge. The linebackers didn't have to do much, but Wartman and Bell laid big hits, and Mike Hull cleaned up the middle. That front seven was as good as it could have been, and with a secondary, Jordan Lucas and Adrian Amos excepting, still thin on talent and experience and, especially, experienced talent, it will need to be exactly that good. UCF started consecutive drives at the Penn State 23 and the 37. They came away with 3 points, total. For all the missed opportunities on offense, take a moment to consider the stolen opportunities by the defense.
As for the offense? Christian Hackenberg is the man now (and, with 454 yards, the all-time single-game passing leader in Penn State history) especially given the offensive line's inability to open up holes for the backs, or get any push in the ground game. Despite a few (bad) mistakes, and a couple interceptions, it's clear that this is Hack's team, for better more than for worse. He doesn't have Allen Robinson anymore, but he has three go-to receivers: Hamilton, Lewis, and Jesse James all finished with at least seven catches; the former two racking up 165 and 173 yards, respectively. It may take John Donovan some time to find out the best schemes, to open up the run game, to work in the freshmen, and most crucially, for the offensive line to gel, but until then, it will be talent on talent, and more often than not, I'll take Penn State's.
There will be more to write later, but for now, Penn State, let's celebrate. Football is back, and we're 1-0, and there might be no better feeling on a Saturday morning.
Quarterbacks: B+. Christian Hackenberg was as good as he had to be, and was more mobile than we've seen him--scrambling for first downs, rolling out to extend plays, sidestepping pressure. He still needs to learn when to throw the ball away, but when he had time, the results were astounding. Oh, and his pocket presence was massively improved.
Running Backs: C-. It wasn't their fault--the offensive line couldn't open up any holes, or get a straight-ahead push, but 2 yards per carry speak for itself. Despite Franklin's efforts to get Bill Belton going, this may be Zwinak's unit, as he's the more straight-ahead power runner--something necessary when there's no room or time to dance in the backfield. The backs did do a good job in pass protection, though.
Receivers: A. Chris Godwin had a fumble, and there were a few drops here and there, but it's hard to argue with the results, and against a good UCF defense. Hamilton and Lewis were great, all four tight ends played, and the freshmen didn't look out of place. We've got another three years of this, guys. Get pumped.
Offensive Line: D+. The run game got no traction whatsoever, and Hackenberg spent far too much of this game running for his life. He got banged up a few times, and with him would go Penn State's season. Brandon Mahon was the most common culprit, but even Donovan Smith got beat with some regularity. This is the nadir, but it was a low nadir.
Defensive Line: A-. Only two sacks, but constant pressure on all but the shortest passes, and an awesome push in the ground game. A surprise contributor: Carl Nassib was surprisingly active, and earned a (uncalled) holding penalty on one of UCF's longer completions.
Linebackers: A-. UCF managed 24 yards on 29 carries. That's not very good. Later, they spread Penn State out, to mitigate the impact of this group, but that speaks to how well Mike Hull et al. played.
Secondary: C+. Jordan Lucas was great, early, but late, it was Da'Quan Davis and Trevor Williams getting torched. Adrian Amos had a nice deflection, and Malik Golden a big hit, but this group was short on the big plays, especially once Holman came in. Still, it's nice to have enough depth to actually use dime schemes, and given the growing pains of a new defensive coordinator, this isn't the worst place to start from.
Special Teams: B+. Ficken nailed all four of his kicks, including the game winner, and Gulla's one punt was perfectly cromulent. The return game was okay--Grant Haley broke one, only to have it called back on a ticky-tack holding penalty. If it weren't for the breakdown on a long return early--with a great chase-down tackle by Trevor Williams--this group would've been pretty flawless.
Coaching: B+. John Donovan got a little too cute with the Zwildcat, and might love his bubble screens a little too much. Bob Shoop's defense didn't seem prepared to defend against a pass-first, downfield offense. And James Franklin's decision to throw on 4th-and-25 from the 40 with 20 seconds left was puzzling at best. But those weren't mistakes that decided the game, and this staff had Penn State prepared and ready and fired up from the opening kick.