Penn State’s defense got a pop quiz in speed Saturday and failed. It couldn’t slow down Central Florida and quarterback Blake Bortles because it got limited pressure and were simply slower than the Knights through most of the first three quarters.
“We felt good going in that we knew what we had to do to stop them,” Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler said, “and to be honest with you, we couldn’t stop what we needed to stop — by scheme, coaches-wise and players.”
Blame, defensively at least, should be placed all across the board for the 34-31 loss. Penn State allowed touchdown drives of 89, 64 and 89 yards in the first half, so it seemed both coaches and players weren’t ready. The defense limited UCF to just 13 points in the second half and seemed better prepared after getting 15 minutes to adjust.
Safety Malcolm Willis and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said Butler didn’t change much at halftime, minus a few minor adjustments. They stuck to their gameplan, but it didn’t come through until the fourth quarter.
“We tried everything,” Butler said. “That’s one thing I know I can say, we emptied the game plan. We tried to play man, we tried to play zone, we tried to play half-man, half-zone. They did a good job.”
Last season, Penn State prided itself on starting fast. The team outscored its opponents 97-20 in the first quarter. This season, it’s 14-14 in the opening quarter through three games.
That’s not a bad number, but when it comes down to it, 31 points and 455 yards of total offense at home should be enough to get Penn State past Central Florida. The slow start really doomed the Nittany Lions, as they were forced to play catch-up all night.
Cornerback Jordan Lucas equated the learning experience to an exam.
“Definitely I feel like it was a test for us, it’s just like in school,” Lucas said. “When you have that first test and you see something like it again on the final, you know the answer. I think it’s good that we saw this early.”
But the test Bortles gave Penn State’s defense was a difficult one, and he knew it. The redshirt junior quarterback played with a chip on his shoulder and had something to prove.
As Penn State closed the gap to seven in the fourth quarter, he never lost confidence.
“I knew we’d be alright. They hadn’t stopped us all night,” Bortles said. “The only way they stopped us was us stopping ourselves. We knew were fine. We just had to stay calm and get two first downs, and run the clock out.”
The unique thing about Penn State’s sanction years is that at the end of the day, a loss doesn’t kill any end of the season hopes. There’s no bowl game or conference title to contend for, so as long as the Nittany Lions get better as the season progresses and don’t repeat the same mistakes, there’s a positive to take away. They did it last season.
“If there's one thing people around here know about our players, it's that they've been through a lot worse than losing to Central Florida,” Butler said. “Their confidence is going to be shaken, like it always is after a loss. But they'll come back and like coach O’Brien said, put their nose to the grindstone, correct what we have to correct and move forward.”
Steve Petrella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (814) 865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @steve_petrella.