For Central Florida, it all started with a phone call from Bill O’Brien.
Knights coach George O’Leary was approached by the former Penn State coach, who was once one of his top assistants.
Ireland sounded just fine to O’Leary.
“Billy had called and said, ‘Coach, do you have an interest?’ ” O’Leary said at his weekly news conference. “What he was trying to do was, because of the probation that Penn State was on, to get the kids a trip. And I said sure, I’d be willing to play that.
“Billy knew it was a game he wanted to get to.”
Of course, it won’t be O’Brien on the other sideline Saturday when UCF faces the Nittany Lions in the Croke Park Classic. James Franklin took over in January shortly after O’Brien left for the NFL.
“He called me before he took the Houston job,” O’Leary said. “Said, ‘Coach, I’m taking that job.’ I said, ‘That’s great. There’s only 32 of them. You might as well take one.’
“He said, ‘Boy, I’m catching a lot of heck from my dad.’ ”
No more overseas trip, apparently, for the entire O’Brien clan.
From Penn State’s perspective, the plan was to find something that could take the place of a bowl game with the program facing a four-year postseason ban.
UCF, meanwhile, was looking for exposure. The Knights agreed to the game back before their landmark 12-1 season in 2013, one in which they beat the Nittany Lions in Beaver Stadium and Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.
This time around, however, they don’t have a sure-fire NFL quarterback under center.
Blake Bortles played very well in the win over the Lions before skipping his final year to enter the draft, where he went third overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
His successor, Pete DiNovo, is a redshirt freshman who has yet to take a snap in a college game.
O’Leary, never one to stifle an opinion, was asked if he was happy with the progress of DiNovo and his other young quarterbacks who are battling for playing time.
“No,” he said simply. “I’m not. You know, sometimes you get spoiled a little bit, but I think it’s a constant work in progress with the quarterbacks.
“Pete DiNovo was named starting quarterback because of what he took from the sideline to the huddle to the execution of the play. I think he’s done a good job with that. But from the execution, he’s a typical freshman that has to understand consistency is the key. You’re constantly trying to make sure that basically you’re a productive quarterback back there. You can’t turn it over. You can’t do things that cause games to be lost.”
Like Penn State, UCF has to replace most of the offensive line from a year ago. The Knights likely won’t ask DiNovo to do too much in his debut.
But it’s far from a grim situation for UCF, which returns nearly every receiver of consequence from a year ago to help out the young quarterback.
O’Leary pointed out that Bortles wasn’t a highly rated passer coming out of high school and said that some of the tape from Bortles’ freshman year would still make him cringe.
In that regard, DiNovo is further along than his predecessor at the same stage in their careers.
“As a freshman? Heck yeah,” O’Leary said. “I think Blake really came in his sophomore year. Blake just had a fantastic growth. The freshman QBs are all the same. that’s why you don’t see them starting across the country. Because they’re just not used to the speed of the game.”
“I think Pete and all of the quarterbacks have done a good job. I’m not looking at them compared to Blake. I’m looking at them compared to other freshmen that we’ve had … and they’re a heck of a lot further ahead of freshman quarterbacks we’ve had in the past as far as getting things done.
“It’s just, as a head coach, you always want it done now.”