Good Knights: UCF, O’Leary show how smaller schools level field

UNIVERSITY PARK – Asked immediately how it felt to almost see one of his program’s signature wins slip away in the closing minutes, UCF football coach George O’Leary bristled.

“You’re talking like a loser,” O’Leary snapped. “Now ask the question the right way.”

“Coach, was this the biggest win you’ve had?”

O’Leary relaxed, sat back and smiled as he answered.

“Yes,” he exclaimed.

O’Leary and his Knight players were all positive from there. But they might want to get used to having higher expectations from the outside after they beat Penn State in Beaver Stadium 34-31 on Saturday night.

“I think it’s huge to beat a team like Penn State, which is such a great opponent. It was such a great atmosphere to play in. We just couldn’t be more happy,” said Knights quarterback Blake Bortles, who carved the Nittany Lion defense up to the tune of 20-of-28 passing for 288 yards and three touchdowns.

Fans might need to get used to it, too. More and more of the “smaller schools” seem to be finding ways to compete with the big dogs these days. Look at the waves FCS schools have made this year, following up on the success of Boise State and other smaller Division I programs against tradition big conference powers in recent seasons. Penn State has fallen to Houston and Ohio in the last three years, teams Lion fans in the past would have taken to be automatic wins.

Already this season UCF had beaten Akron by 31 points. Akron took Michigan down to the last play on Saturday before losing to the Wolverines.

“I think what’s happened now with the 25 scholarship [per year limit] is that everybody has skilled athletes,” O’Leary said. “The teams that separate themselves are the teams with the dominant offensive and defensive linemen. They’re the top 10 teams.”

UCF actually is well-equipped to make a big move up. The school that began as a technological college in response to the United States’ growing space program in the 1960s has the second-largest enrollment in the country next to Arizona State. It is located smack dab in the middle of a metropolitan area in the center of a state that produces enough Division I football talent to keep three big-time programs perennial top-25 residents and a couple of others competitive.

“We knew they were going to be big. We knew we’d be faster,” Bortles said matter-of-factly. “We knew we’d be able to get outside and make plays happen. It’s what we practiced all week, and we executed it.”

UCF already had some nice wins to its credit under O’Leary – it had a bowl win against Georgia – but a road win of this magnitude kind of had eluded the Knights, although there were a couple of close calls.

“It’s the biggest [win] since I’ve been there,” O’Leary said. “I think right now, at the stage of program that we’re at, I think you can build on a win like this.

“You play a storied program like Penn State, the tradition they have, the crowd they have, it’s a tough place to play. I’ll tell you, we had that lion roaring all week at our field house, and it wasn’t as loud as it was here. I thought Bortles handled the noise extremely well. We ran a pretty clean game from an execution standpoint.”

The Knights never looked like they were outclassed athletically or intimidated by the Nittany Lions, driving 89 yards on 13 plays for a touchdown after taking the opening kickoff. When Penn State answered, Storm Johnson promptly gave UCF the momentum – and the lead – back with a 58-yard-run down the visiting sideline.

“The fact that we were able to put together that first drive really put us all at ease, and we were able to do what we wanted to do,” said Knight receiver J.J. Wortmon, who caught seven passes for 101 yards, including a diving 5-yard touchdown grab and a 44-yard gainer.

By the middle of the third quarter, the Knights had a 28-10 lead. They finished with 507 yards against a defense that had performed exceptionally in its first two games. UCF had 289 yards at halftime.

“We wanted to come up here and get respect, and that’s what we did. Coach O’Leary said we didn’t just want to come up here to have a good game,” said Johnson, who finished with 117 yards on 17 carries. “I’m proud of my guys. We played hard. When it got tough, we didn’t fold.”

And UCF did that without left tackle Torrian Wilson, who was injured. Chris Martin moved over from right tackle, but Penn State couldn’t get much pressure on Bortles, who wasn’t sacked, while the Knight rushers found plenty of room to run through.

“Our offensive line protected very well. They gave him a chance to step up inside and throw the ball, which is why we had some big plays there,” O’Leary said. “There were a lot of big plays offensively on both sides.”

The biggest defensive play was turned in by Knight middle linebacker Terrance Plummer, who forced Penn State running back Zach Zwinak to fumble at the UCF 27 with 5:43 left and the Lions trailing by 10. UCF’s Sean Maag recovered, enabling his team to run nearly 2 more critical minutes off the clock.

“As I brought him down, I tried to rake at the ball to get it out. I didn’t know I did it until everybody was cheering. It was a good moment,” Plummer said. “We were definitely trying to keep our composure in the last minutes of the game. It was getting hectic.”

This might have been a confidence-building win for the Knights, but they came in with a lot of confidence, too.

“We feel like we’re a better team than anyone that we’re matched up with. All of us are coming together as a group. We’re a veteran group,” Wortmon said. “We really showed the world what we can do.”

Making a name for UCF seems like it was a rallying cry for the Knights.

“We definitely played with a chip on our shoulders. I know I do,” Bortles said. “We didn’t have the [scholarship] offers from Penn State and the big schools. When we come here and play, we want to make sure they know we can play with them.”

A member of the fledgling American Athletic Conference with most of the old Big East football schools, UCF struck a blow for the little guys on Saturday, but also sent a message that they might be the next little big guy itself.

“This is probably the biggest win since I’ve been here,” Plummer said, “but we’ve got many more to come. We take this as a steppingstone that we’re coming.”