Forget Ireland. Today’s game against Central Florida is the one that could affect Penn State’s perception the most.
While the Nittany Lions will enjoy the increased exposure that comes from the program’s first game in another country — the 2014 opener against UCF in Dublin — they have a chance to make a bigger mark nationally with a win over the Knights tonight.
A victory over their toughest non-conference opponent could set the Lions up for a 5-0 start with Kent State and Indiana coming up next on the schedule. And a 5-0 Penn State team, unbowed by NCAA sanctions, could take the national stage on Oct. 12 when the Lions host a top-10 Michigan squad also likely to be 5-0.
It’s the type of scenario that the program is looking for to attract attention and recruits as it tries to survive its penalties.
But UCF isn’t going to make things easy for the Lions.
“Yeah, we face a big challenge,” said Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, who prepares to face George O’Leary, his former boss at Georgia Tech “They’re an excellent football team. They’re very well‑coached. They’re sound. They’re physical. They’re physical at all positions.
“Our players better be ready to come and show up for a physical football game because this won’t be a game for the faint of heart. That’s a Coach O’Leary trademark.”
O’Brien should know. After seven seasons as an assistant under O’Leary with the Yellow Jackets, he was set to join him as his offensive coordinator at Notre Dame in 2002. But O’Leary was abruptly dismissed shortly after the Fighting Irish hired him because of discrepancies on his resume.
That forever changed the futures of both men, ultimately leading them to opposing sidelines for tonight’s game at Beaver Stadium.
Not that either coach is going to get too sentimental about it.
“This is UCF-Penn State,” O’Leary said. “This is not myself-himself. I have enough (former assistants) in coaching now that if I worried about stuff like that, I wouldn’t be able to coach.”
As it stands, O’Leary is the Lions’ biggest obstacle to hitting that next level of national recognition. In his 10th season with the Knights, he has helped build the program into a competitive one, a far cry from the 0-11 squad that came to Beaver Stadium in 2004, O’Leary’s first season.
Penn State fielded one of it worst offensive teams ever that season, finishing 4-7. But the Lions had no issue with UCF that season, winning 37-13.
Since then, the Knights have hit 10 wins or more three times and picked up an invitation to join the remnants of the old Big East — now dubbed the American Athletic Conference — this season.
To open 2013, they won both of their games by a combined score of 76-7 and did so without committing a turnover. But it’s tough to gauge just how good these Knights are because their opponents were Akron and Florida International, two of the country’s weakest programs.
What’s much easier to say is that UCF has one of the toughest dropback passers that Penn State will see all year in 6-foot-4 junior Blake Bortles.
“He’s a pro prospect,” said O’Brien, who knows a little something about the subject. “It’s hard to totally stop a guy like that, but you’ve got to try to contain him. He’s very, very good.”
The Big Ten’s best quarterbacks, like Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, are guys who can open things up downfield with a scramble. While Bortles prefers to work out of the pocket, he has shown an ability to evade the pass rush in the early going, and it’s something the Lions are watching out for.
“He’s definitely a big guy,” linebacker Glenn Carson said. “He also has a good ability to run for his big frame. He’s going to be guy that’s tough to take down. He’s got a pretty good arm and he can run a little bit. Definitely one of the best QBs we’ve faced in awhile.”