Penn State out to learn from last season's loss to UCF

ASSOCIATED PRESS Brandon Bell (foreground) and his Penn State teammates cheer after they receive some lessons in Gaelic football and in hurling.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Brandon Bell (foreground) and his Penn State teammates cheer after they receive some lessons in Gaelic football and in hurling.
Posted: August 29, 2014

DUBLIN - It was supposed to be O'Brien against O'Leary in Ireland.

But that would have been too perfect, right?

Instead of the ultimate Irish matchup, James Franklin's Nittany Lions will face George O'Leary's Knights, as Penn State and Central Florida open their seasons in Dublin at Croke Park at 8:30 a.m. (EDT) tomorrow.

After taking over for Bill O'Brien in January, Franklin has won several battles on the recruiting trail, but has not yet competed on the sideline. Tomorrow affords him that opportunity.

With the Lions looking to reverse last season's 34-31 home defeat to the Knights, who went 12-1 in 2013, including a Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor, revenge would presumably be on their minds.

But it's not. Tactics instead of emotion will fuel the Lion in their season opener. The Knights will try to stop quarterback Christian Hackenberg, and the Lions adjust defensively to not seeing NFL first-rounder Blake Bortles under center.

Hackenberg, the first sophomore to serve as captain in Penn State history, said he's focused on attacking a UCF defense boasting nine returning starters.

"We feel very confident about what we're going to do," Hackenberg said. "We also respect the fact that they're a very good defensive team."

That defense surrendered only 21.1 points per game in conference last season, but yielded 31 points to Penn State with then-freshman Hackenberg under center.

Last year's game was the Palmyra, Va., native's third collegiate start, and the quarterback said he was still getting a feel for what defenses at this level look like. Posting a passing line of 21-for-28 for 262 yards and one touchdown was pretty solid for an 18-year-old kid acclimating to college speed of play.

"We didn't stop him very well last time, so I hope it's a little better this time," O'Leary said with a chuckle.

Hackenberg's stat line was impressive, but the recipient of almost half the signal-caller's receptions is no longer with the team. Allen Robinson, who left Penn State after his junior year and was drafted in the second round by the Jacksonville Jaguars, caught nine of Hackenberg's 21 completions against the Knights.

That similar approach - an inexperienced passer checking to his reliable target or targets - will be switching sidelines this year.

The Knights lost Bortles, now Robinson's teammate in Jacksonville who was drafted third overall this year. The 6-5 quarterback torched Penn State's secondary for three touchdowns and 288 yards last year and finished the season with 3,581 yards through the air and 31 total scores.

Bortles' replacement? Pete DiNovo, a redshirt freshman without a single passing attempt.

And yet, Penn State still respects UCF's offense. Franklin said Hackenberg's relationship with Robinson is similar to the weapons DiNovo has at his disposal, although DiNovo has a stable of reliable targets, not only one.

J.J. Worton, Josh Reese, Breshad Perriman and Rannell Hall combined for 18 receptions, 256 yards and a touchdown against Penn State last year. All four are back this year.

Franklin said all DiNovo needs is to hit a few shallow crosses or drag routes to gain the necessary confidence.

"I think when you have a young quarterback and you can surround him with veteran playmakers, it's helpful," Franklin said. "You think about Hack last year with Allen Robinson and all the plays Allen made for him. This guy has [four] guys that's been productive for them."

Penn State cornerback Jordan Lucas said after looking at video, he thinks the UCF receiving corps will likely be the best unit the Lions will face all season.

While he and the defense have watched plenty of film in preparation for the game, the Knights are tougher to scout without knowing what they'll face under center.

"It's a little different, because you never know if their new quarterback is able to make throws and keep plays alive like Bortles could," Lucas said. "I know they're going to miss him this year, but who knows how much they'll miss him."

That, among many aspects of this matchup, is in wait-and-see mode.

It's not uncommon that there are so many questions at this juncture. O'Leary said the first game of the season - whether on American or European soil - is a "game of adjustments."

In this case, can Penn State identify DiNovo's strengths and weaknesses early? Can UCF pressure Hackenberg better than last fall? Who will fly out of Dublin with an unblemished start to the season?

"It's the unknown that you get concerned about," O'Leary said.

That unknown will be identified tomorrow.

Agenda

Penn State vs. Central Florida

What: Season opener

When: 8:30 a.m. Where: Croke Park, Dublin

TV: ESPN2

Radio: WNTP (990 AM), ESPN (93.7 FM)

Three things to watch:

1. Does Christian Hackenberg identify anyone in particular as a go-to target? He put up a phenomenal freshman season, but relied heavily on now-NFL wide receiver Allen Robinson. Without a true No. 1 receiving threat, Hackenberg will be tested.

2. How Penn State schemes and performs defensively in the first quarter could determine how this game shakes out. Central Florida is starting redshirt freshman quarterback Pete DiNovo, who would benefit from getting into an early rhythm. Whether the Nittany Lions pressure DiNovo and get to him early will be crucial to keeping his confidence low.

3. This will be a pro-Penn State crowd — it has been obvious walking into any Dublin bar this week. But it will be interesting to see how many Irish show up. Croke Park holds 82,300, seats 73,500; that’s a lot of space to fill. A full house is expected, though, and there’s noticeable interest in this game around Dublin. Plus, American football seldom comes to Europe.


On Twitter: @jmcgonigal9

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