UNIVERSITY PARK - Despite all the warnings, despite the coach speak about it being a tough game - which turned out not to be coach speak at all - and despite the opponent being a directional school that most people can't even name which conference it plays in (the American Athletic, formerly the Big East), many Penn State fans probably showed up to Beaver Stadium on Saturday assuming there was no way their team could lose to Central Florida.
But this was no upset.
The better team won.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Penn State defensive end C.J. Olaniyan pressures Penn State quarterback Blake Bortles on a roll-out Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
"They beat us tonight, fair and square," PSU coach Bill O'Brien said after a 34-31 loss.
"They outplayed us," Nittany Lion guard John Urschel added.
Central Florida shredded Penn State's defense for 507 yards - 219 on the ground - and beat a Big Ten team for the first time in school history. The Knights built a 28-10 lead by early in the third quarter and held off a resilient PSU squad in the closing minutes to stun the crowd of 92,855.
Just like fans shouldn't have assumed a victory, they also shouldn't necessarily assume the poor defense was the only reason Penn State lost.
The offensive players took their share of the blame, while Urschel did the smart thing - what else is new - and refused to single out even the obvious areas where PSU was outplayed.
"Honestly, that's not really the type of thing you can do as a football team," he said. "You can't go and look at a football game and say, hey, these units didn't play so well. At the end of the day, we win as a team, we lose as a team, and every unit has room for improvement, and every player has room for improvement."
The defensive issues were evident: inability to stop the run, young cornerbacks getting beaten repeatedly, failing to get off the field on key third downs.
And UCF quarterback Blake Bortles certainly lived up to the pregame hype of being a legitimate NFL prospect, completing 20-of-27 passes for 288 yards and three TDs.
Penn State (2-1) had been superb on defense its first two games, and the players would never have believed they would give up 500 yards against Central Florida (3-0).
"No, not the way we've been playing," tackle DaQuan Jones said. "We didn't play our game today, we didn't bring our 'A' game."
The defense was obviously a mess, but the less-obvious reason for the defeat was because PSU's offense couldn't live up to its end of the bargain and win what many people figured could end up being a shootout.
"We're playing against a great offense, and they were putting up points fast," receiver Allen Robinson said. "So we've got to try to match it as an offense."
The Lions couldn't do that, scoring only 10 points in the first half. The defense kept struggling, putting the offense in a bigger hole, but it took too long for the guys with the ball to start scoring enough to challenge the Knights.
O'Brien is always talking about the offense starting fast, and it did Saturday with a TD on its first drive. But the Lions couldn't sustain it in subsequent drives the rest of the first half and fell behind big.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg said the offense can't just wait until the second half to get going, adding, "We've got to play well in both halves."
"The biggest takeaway is that we've got to start fast," Robinson said. "Once we get into the Big Ten we're playing against some great offenses, and people are going to put up points early. So we've got to get going early. We've got to start a little faster, and we've got to be able to match them."
The offense was the only reason Penn State still had a shot in the second half because the defense had no answers for Bortles and the Knights. The Lions started clicking and slowly climbed back into the game, leading to a surprisingly close finish.
Robinson had another huge game with nine catches for 143 yards, and if there's been a better receiver in the country through three games it would be a surprise.
Hackenberg also had a big night, completing 21-of-28 for 262 yards and a score.
Zach Zwinak carried the load on the ground with 128 yards on 21 carries and scored three times. But he also had a very costly fumble late in the fourth quarter (see notebook).
"We made too many mistakes tonight," O'Brien said.
The Lions pulled within one score, 31-24, on a 1-yard TD by Zwinak with 13:35 to go, and suddenly a game that Central Florida had controlled was up for grabs.
The Knights answered, though, with a drive that led to a field goal with 8:10 remaining to stretch the margin back to 34-24.
Zwinak's fumble killed a PSU drive at the Knights' 29, and it appeared to end the Lions' hopes. But Central Florida made a big mistake with a high snap on a punt, giving Penn State a possession that started on the Knights' 25 with 3:48 remaining.
Hackenberg hit Robinson for a 5-yard score to pull the Lions with 34-31 with 2:51 left.
Penn State had only one timeout remaining, and O'Brien decided to kick it deep rather than try an onside kick. Central Florida wound up getting a big passing first down with two minutes left and was able to run out the clock without PSU getting another chance.
"They never quit. They never quit," O'Brien said of his team. "It's a lot of fun to coach these kids, and we'll do better. We'll keep improving."