To be sure, this isn’t exactly a low point for Penn State. Not after the last two years.
“If there’s one thing people around here should know about our players, it’s that they’ve been through a lot worse than losing to Central Florida,” defensive coordinator John Butler said. “Their confidence I think is going to be shaken like it always is after a loss, but they’ll come back to the drawing board Monday and correct what we’ve got to correct.
“I have no concern about that.”
But there’s still plenty for the Nittany Lions to evaluate after their 34-31 loss to UCF on Saturday. From penalties, to personnel to philosophy, the Lions have one game and an off week to patch things up before starting Big Ten play.
One of the most glaring issues Saturday was the sheer number of missed tackles. It stands to reason that the Lions suffer a bit in this area because they’re forced to keep away from full-contact in practice, going with “thud drills” where ballcarriers aren’t taken to the ground.
“Everyone wants to say because we don’t tackle in practice we won’t tackle as well in games, but I don’t know about that,” Butler said initially.
Pressed about it further, Butler said criticism of thud drills when it comes to improving tackling was “fair” and that they can be a detriment in that regard.
But given the Lions’ precarious scholarship situation with the NCAA sanctions, the team just can’t afford to risk injuries during the week.
“That’s the decision we have to make when you only have 62 (healthy) scholarship players,” Butler said. “You’ve got to do your best to give what you have to the field (on Saturdays). You don’t want to take it to 57 because you’re tackling in practice.”
It will be a challenge for Butler and the rest of the defensive staff to find ways to improve tackling technique without full-contact demonstrations.
Beyond that, the Lions changed things up late in Saturday’s loss in the secondary. UCF seemed to pick on sophomore corner Trevor Williams, and by midway through the fourth quarter Williams found himself on the sideline.
Jordan Lucas swapped sides to take over as the field corner with Adrian Amos moving up from safety to play boundary corner. Ryan Keiser entered to play safety back with Malcolm Willis.
Lions coach Bill O’Brien said after the game he thought there may have been an injury that led to that switch-up, but Butler indicated otherwise.
“That was just a coach’s decision just to try to get a little more experience,” Butler said. “We felt like they were throwing the ball successfully to the field. So we just moved Jordan to the field and put Adrian back at the boundary.”
Much of the focus will understandably be on the defense this week, but the Lions also have some nagging issues elsewhere to address.
Mental errors begin adding up in a three-point loss. Before Sam Ficken lined up for his 47-yard field goal in the second quarter, the Lions had to burn a timeout because they had just 10 players on the field.
They needed that timeout badly after Malcolm Willis gave them the ball back for a two-minute drill with an interception. With Penn State driving into field goal range, Christian Hackenberg took an ill-advised sack on second down, and without a timeout, the Lions had to spike the ball on third to set up a 57-yard attempt for Ficken instead of something more manageable.
Ficken’s kick was on the mark but short. One more short gain on the drive may have been enough to get the Lions those extra three points.
“I was pretty confident, but unfortunately on that 57-yarder I got a little under the ball and it ended up being a yard or two short,” Ficken said. “I think if the kicks were switched they both would have been good. The direction was good, the hold and snap was good. I just got under it a little bit.”