But this past Saturday inside Beaver Stadium, a building upon which rigid defensive football is ingrained in its soil, Butler and his unit embarrassed Penn State Football. The performance against Central Florida was perhaps the worst display of overall defense by this program in 15 years.
Sure, the purposeful lack of full-contact tackling during training camp hurts the ability to perform at optimum level, and head coach Bill O’Brien absolutely made the correct decision regarding that issue; considering the limited depth on State’s roster, the risk of injury is simply too great to go full bore. However, there is certainly a middle ground between not tackling in practice and still being top-of-the-line college football players who’ve been doing it since their Pop Warner years.
George O’Leary’s offense did whatever it wanted to all night, marched down the field with carte blanche – running, passing, long plays, medium-range plays, short plays – and made Penn State look like a silly, helpless freshly-sliced piece of Swiss cheese. That Joe Tiller-style bubble screen was executed with such precision that it looked like UCF was practicing against its own scout team.
The opposing talent must be taken into account. Tailback Storm Johnson is a man playing among boys and could start for the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night. Blake Bortles will be drafted at the next level and there are several linemen on both sides of the ball that’ll also play on Sundays. It took that program 10 years to become legitimate in the FBS. Florida is probably the only state in the country with enough top-level high school talent to fill the rosters of three national powers and two relative newcomers (South Florida being the other in addition to UCF).
That was evident in spades on Saturday night.
Central Florida didn’t blink once. Playing a traditional all-time program on the road in front of 107,000 92,000 fans (that’s for you MF & JG) did not phase even one player on O’Leary’s roster. The Knights were ready to play. Penn State’s defense was not.
“They just did a better job collectively. Their players executed the game plan probably better than ours did,” said Butler after the game. “Their offensive coaches coached better than I did. Give the credit to them.”
It’s refreshing for a Penn State coach to exude honesty. Butler and his starters got their asses kicked and he admitted it. A game like that happens to every coordinator at every program. Now he must pick up the pieces and move on.
Early in the fourth quarter after Penn State drew within seven, 31-24, and finally had momentum and the until-that-point drowsy crowd on its side, the defense could’ve atoned for three lackluster (that’s being kind) quarters with a much-needed 3-and-out. A pass interference call, which upon further review looked legitimate, on the first series of the Knights’ ensuing possession gave the visitors a first down on their own 37-yard line. The next series began with an eight-yard scramble by Bortles. William Stanback was then stuffed at the line of scrimmage by Glenn Carson for no gain on second down, which set up a 3rd-and-2 at the UCF 45.
On the next play, Stanback was again given the ball and was initially tied up by three defenders short of the first-down marker, but broke several tackles and eventually mustered enough momentum to move the chains.
That was the final nail in the coffin. If there was one single play on which State’s defense needed to hold serve in an effort to (at least somewhat) wash away many of its shortcomings earlier in the game, that was it.
This loss will appear “better” in November when UCF is ranked in the top 20 of the BCS standings.
The positive side of the game’s ledger is two-fold. The first is the heart that the entire team – defense included, but don’t confuse effort with execution – showed throughout the second half. It’s difficult to imagine the Nittany Lions fighting to the bitter end the way they did against the Knights during the final 10-plus seasons under the previous regime. Credit must be given where it’s due: O’Brien’s players fought tooth-and-nail until literally the final whistle.
In addition, the offensive must be credited with an outstanding performance, particularly up front. Center Ty Howle and guards John Urschel and Miles Dieffenbach blocked with solid timing and precision, allowing Zach Zwinak to amass 128 rushing yards. Rookie Christian Hackenberg dazzled again, this time under the lights, and continued to show strong signs of both growth and poise (even during his first flea-flicker attempt at this level).
It is now clear that Hackenberg’s buddy Allen Robinson cannot be contained by single coverage and is the best wide receiver for State since Bobby Engram. Almost comical was the pass interference call that Robinson drew – one of four in the contest – in the fourth quarter. Every official on the field threw his flag; there were literally six yellow beanies on the turf.
All told, if these two teams met again later in the season, a different outcome would be likely. But that’s part of the game – you play who you play when you play ’em. And for O’Brien, he’ll get a chance for redemption against his former boss on Labor Day weekend 2014 on the other side of the pond.
Hopefully the defense will make that flight.