Rudel: UCF matchup brings some intrigue

Tonight we find out a little more about the Penn State football team.

Most expect Central Florida’s visit to provide a better gauge on whether the Nittany Lions will be vulnerable to non-BCS conference opposition and whether they’ll handle the teams they’re supposed to handle.

Or whether UCF, under veteran coach and Bill O’Brien mentor George O’Leary, is really a cut below many teams in BCS conferences.

Penn State never totally put away Syracuse in the season-opener, and if the good things the Lions did in that game were a source of encouragement, they were negated when the Orange went to Northwestern and were hammered, 48-27 – a game the ‘Cuse trailed 34-7 at half.

And though victory was never in doubt last week against an Eastern Michigan team that is a 27-point underdog today at Rutgers, Penn State’s knockout punch didn’t come until well into the second half.

That shouldn’t be overly surprising since the Lions have 20 fewer scholarship players than their opponents – struggles should not be unexpected – and they’re operating with a true freshman quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, making just his third career start tonight.

Penn State’s defense has been stout, and its kicking game, particularly Sam Ficken, is way ahead of its early-season struggles of a year ago.

Where the Lions have shown some significant need for improvement is on the offensive line, a unit that was expected to be strong.

O’Brien acknowledged as much this week, saying, “Overall, we need to play more consistent up front. I’ve talked to these guys about that. Mac [offensive line coach Mac McWhorter] feels the same way.”

Of Penn State’s 251 yards rushing vs. Eastern Michigan, 166 came in the fourth quarter.

“We were here and there throughout the game,” Lion left tackle Donovan Smith said. “We would get some push, they would slant a couple guys and blitz, and then they would stop us. It would go back and forth. I have utmost respect for Eastern Michigan.”

The lack of a consistent running game has contributed to major problems on third down: The Nits’ conversion rate of (.077) – just two for 26 – ranks last among the country’s 123 FBS teams.

PSU converted 43 percent last year.

“It will get better,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien is priming for the most physical challenge the Lions will get from their non-conference opponents as Central Florida went into Columbus last year and hung around before losing by two touchdowns.

It’s hard to imagine Penn State can beat UCF handily – or at all – without getting much better on third down.

Either way, tonight’s backdrop provides some intrigue as, with outmanned Kent State in town next week, UCF represents the biggest hurdle standing between the Nittany Lions and a 4-0 record heading into Big Ten play.

And while almost no one in the Nittany Nation over the years entered a game with a UCF-type opponent concerned, the NCAA sanctions have brought an element of uncertainty, however unwelcome, that has leveled the playing field.

To that end, it’s made this game more interesting.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or