UCF more than just Bortles

DUBLIN – Five things to look for as the James Franklin era begins at Penn State with an intriguing matchup overseas against Central Florida in the Croke Park Classic.

No. 1. Experienced foe

Star quarterback Blake Bortles is gone to the NFL, so Penn State should win this game. That seems to be the prevailing thought of many Nittany Lion fans, those content with thinking about today’s game in the simplest terms.

If you fall into that category, you could be setting yourself up for a big surprise.

Yes, Bortles was fantastic last year against PSU and was the No. 3 pick in the NFL draft. But this UCF team has 15 starters back from a squad that went 12-1 and finished No. 10 in the country.

Most importantly, nine of those starters are on defense, and that defense will be going up against a huge question mark in Penn State’s offensive line. Look for the defense to do everything it can to confuse and surprise the Lions up front in order to make things tough for quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

Central Florida also has an experienced head coach in George O’Leary, who did amazing work in leading the program to its fantastic 2013 season and a BCS bowl win over Baylor. Franklin is a good young coach, but O’Leary has tons of experience and should have his team ready in all phases for this game.

No. 2: UCF’s WRs

The Knights have a new quarterback in redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo, but he won’t have to do everything himself. UCF has three very good receivers who are capable of making plays in Rannell Hall, (57 catches in 2013), J.J. Worton (47) and Breshad Perriman (39).

That’s 143 combined catches, and PSU will have to be prepared to cover all three of them very well in order to stop UCF.

The Lions have a solid cornerback in Jordan Lucas and an experienced safety in Adrian Amos, both of whom have the speed and size to make plays in the secondary. UCF may try to challenge those two, but the Knights likely will go after unproven cornerback Trevor Williams and take shots against safety Ryan Keiser.

We’ve heard a lot about defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s “star” package, which is essentially a nickel, and it could come into play throughout the day as UCF tries to get the ball to its playmakers and let them use their speed.

No. 3: O-line issues

Penn State could have big problems on the offensive line, but UCF might, as well. The Knights lost three starters up front, so their young quarterback could be ripe for the picking if PSU sends lots of pressure.

Ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could have a big game for the Lions as they attack the quarterback. O’Leary knows that, so just like Hackenberg will be trying to get rid of the ball quickly, so will DiNovo.

The difference, though, comes back to the receivers. Penn State has inexperienced wideouts, while the Knights have a veteran trio. If the Lions’ secondary can contest the wideouts for at least a few seconds, that should be enough time to rattle the quarterback.

No. 4: Speed kills

Penn State is developing a lot of team speed, but the problem is it’s largely with younger players who haven’t played much or won’t play at all today. Central Florida outclassed PSU in the speed department last season, and that could happen again.

UCF’s roster is loaded with recruits from the state of Florida, and as everyone knows, that state produces players with immense talent and speed. The best recruits still go to Florida State, Miami and Florida, but Central Florida has started getting its share, too, and they were a big reason why the program had such a great year in 2013.

No. 5: Players to watch

Penn State: TE Kyle Carter – The easy choice is place-kicker Sam Ficken because the game could be decided by a few points either way. But the pick here is Carter, who had a disappointing 2013 season (18 catches) but will be counted on as a major weapon in the passing game as Hackenberg looks to throw quickly. Carter is athletic enough to get free downfield and a good enough receiver to pull in some big grabs.

UCF: RB William Stanback – Not only is Bortles gone, so is standout running back Storm Johnson. The job of replacing him goes to Stanback, a load at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds who ran for 443 yards as a freshman. Stanback averaged 4.2 yards per carry, a number that should greatly improve this season. Both coaches know they have to be balanced to protect their young quarterbacks, so look for O’Leary to keep hammering Stanback.

Prediction: Penn State was a 1-point favorite a week ago, but now UCF is favored by 2. The pick here goes to the stronger defense. UCF 20, Penn State 17