STATE COLLEGE — “Red” simply wasn’t descriptive enough. The always animated John Butler turned a few new shades of the color on the sideline Saturday.
For good reason.
Penn State’s first-year defensive coordinator watched his unit surrender 34 points, 507 yards and big play after big play to Central Florida.
The one big stop the Nittany Lions needed never came. UCF 34, Penn State 31.
After two weeks of strong play, the Lions wilted on defense against a much tougher opponent.
“We tried everything,” Butler said. “That’s the one thing I know I can say. We emptied the gameplan. We tried to play man, we tried to play zone, we tried to play half-man, half-zone.
“But they did a good job.”
Led by stalwart quarterback Blake Bortles, the Knights were able to pick apart the Lions for much of the night.
Bortles threw for 288 yards and three scores while a rushing attack led by Storm Johnson finished with 219 yards.
“We thought we’d be able to handle both better, honestly,” Butler said. “We felt good going into it, but we couldn’t stop what we needed to stop. … They had probably some of the best skill we’ll see (this season).”
Only a horribly botched snap on a UCF punt late in the game gave Penn State a shot at an improbable win, as the Lions (2-1) pulled within three points on a touchdown from Christian Hackenberg (262 yards passing) to Allen Robinson (nine catches, 143 yards).
Penn State kicked it deep with 2:51 to play but couldn’t force a punt to go for the win. UCF simply ran out the clock.
Zach Zwinak set a career-high with three touchdowns to go with 128 yards as the tailback tried to will the Lions back into the game in the second half. But a fourth-quarter fumble in UCF territory cost the Lions too much time.
“We made too many mistakes tonight and they capitalized on them,” Lions coach Bill O’Brien said. “All credit to Central Florida.”
For his part, O’Brien was diplomatic about the play of the defense, carefully making sure to spread the blame around when asked repeatedly about missed tackles.
“Yeah, we didn’t tackle great, but we have to do a better job of coaching,” O’Brien said. “I have to watch the tape, but from the naked eye, we made too many mistakes on both sides of the ball.”
UCF (3-0) gashed Penn State’s previously stout defense for 289 yards in the first half to build a 21-10 lead. Only an interception by Malcolm Willis just before the break prevented it from being worse.
Big plays were there for the Knights on the ground and through the air. Jeff Godfrey had a run of 49 and a catch of 28. Storm Johnson ripped off a 58-yard touchdown run, punctuating it with a stiff arm of a defender near the goal line.
Johnson and J.J. Worton added short touchdown catches to help bury Penn State early.
“We weren’t playing Penn State defense at all,” said a somber DaQuan Jones, arguably the Lions best defensive player thus far.
It showed. The Lions continually found themselves out of place from misdirection or simple overpursuit, allowing UCF some big gains on cutbacks.
In all, the Knights had nine plays of 10 yards or more in the opening 30 minutes, and they picked up right where they left off with two more big plays on their opening drive of the second half for a 28-10 lead.
A 9-yard touchdown by Zwinak, his second of the game, kept the Lions alive. But UCF just kept scoring, adding a pair of field goals that ultimately made the difference in the game.
“It was a tough night, but a heck of a game,” said O’Brien, who was bested by his former boss, George O’Leary. “The guys in that locker room, they never quit.
“We’ll do better. We’ll improve.”