Blake Bortles stepped back in the pocket as the clock dwindled and did the one thing he and his Central Florida squad refused to do all day — roll over.
The UCF quarterback took himself to the ground once the clock struck zero to take a knee and finalize the visiting team’s 34-31 victory over Penn State. Bortles orchestrated a fast-paced Knight offense to the upset with 288 passing yards and three passing touchdowns, often fitting long passes into tight windows to deflate the Nittany Lions’ defense.
The junior, who Penn State coach Bill O’Brien referred to as a pro prospect earlier this week, picked apart the Lions’ secondary from the start, leading the Knights’ 13-play, 89-yard drive with ease to begin the game.
Lions’ defensive coordinator John Butler said Bortles did a great job of neutralizing the Lions’ pass rush — which amassed zero sacks — by not giving the defensive line much time to finish their rushing patterns.
“Quick decision making,” Butler said of Bortles’ best trait. “He was making his decision about where he wanted to throw the ball quickly. He threw it, and the receivers made plays.”
The junior quarterback also found ways to hurt the Lions with the deep ball, targeting an inexperienced secondary group that often came up short in coverage.
With the Knights leading 21-10 in the middle of the third quarter, Bortles felt the pressure on 2nd-and-10 and lofted a high-arching pass right into Josh Reese’s outstretched arms for the touchdown to give the Knights an 18-point lead.
This was one of many instances when Bortles bought time in the pocket before fitting a deep pass into a small area, which is exactly what O'Brien said makes defending him such a difficult task.
“Any time you have a quarterback like that with a strong arm, who’s big and can stand in the pocket and can run, it’s a very difficult challenge,” O’Brien said. “He played a great game tonight. Credit to him. I think he’s a heck of a player.”
Even when Penn State clawed back into the game late in the second half, bringing bursts of energy back into the Beaver Stadium crowd, Bortles answered.
The Lions appeared to have rejuvenated the crowd after a 4-play, 75-yard drive brought them right back within 11 points. But, the Knights’ quarterback tossed two more passes to Reese, the second for 44 yards, to ensure they’d at least get points back on the board.
Bortles ultimately came within inches of scoring on a third-down scramble, and although the Knights ended up settling for a field goal, UCF coach George O’Leary said it was these types of third-down decisions that set the Knights apart.
“I thought there were a couple of key plays I thought that Bortles made downfield on some key third-downs that were real critical. I thought that was the difference in the game.”
Butler said Bortles’ dominant performance brought to light several issues in the Lions’ pass coverage, which he expects his young defense to improve upon.
However, the defensive coordinator said the performance also cemented their initial thought that the quarterback was a legitimate pro prospect.
And for Bortles, who tossed the football into the air after rolling over to take on the last play, the small conference team’s victory derived from taking what the Lions’ defense gave the Knights.
“It's huge,” Bortles said after the game. “Penn State is such a tradition and program. Just historic, awesome with the things they have done. And for us to come in here and have an opportunity to play them, we just took advantage of it and made the best out of our chances.”
John Stuetz can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org or 814-865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnStuetz_PSU.