STATE COLLEGE – Blake Bortles passed for 288 and three touchdowns and UCF stunned Penn State 34-31 on Saturday night.
Storm Johnson ran for a career-high 117 yards and a score and added a touchdown reception as the Knights (3-0) beat a Big Ten team for the first time in school history. UCF never trailed, having its way against Penn State’s defense to give the newly minted American Athletic Conference a shot of respectability.
Zach Zwinak rushed for 128 yards and three touchdowns for the Nittany Lions (2-1) but also fumbled inside UCF territory with less than 6 minutes remaining, blunting a late Penn State rally.
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg completed 21 of 28 passes for 262 yards and a touchdown but the Nittany Lions couldn’t quite catch the faster, sleeker Knights after spotting UCF an 18-point lead.
Bill O’Brien served as offensive assistant under UCF coach George O’Leary at Georgia Tech from 1995-01 and reached out to his mentor about how to revive the Nittany Lions shortly after taking over in January, 2012.
While O’Brien’s tenure has been an unqualified success, the student still has a few things to learn from the teacher.
UCF did whatever it wanted for long stretches, rolling up 507 total yards out of a variety of formations to keep Penn State off balance.
The Knights were hardly intimidated by the atmosphere or a Penn State defense that came in allowing just 221 yards per game. UCF easily topped that total in the first half alone. Bortles led UCF on a 13-play, 89-yard drive to open the game, with Johnson finishing it off by taking a swing pass and slipping into the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown.
The Nittany Lions responded immediately, moving briskly to tie the game when Zwinak bulled over from 4 yards out.
Johnson pushed the Knights back in front with a 58-yard sprint down the right sideline and UCF upped the lead to 14 points when J.J. Worton made an acrobatic grab in the back of the end zone, dragging a foot before rolling out of bounds.
A 47-yard field goal by Sam Ficken only temporarily halted UCF’s momentum. The Knights were driving to score yet again late in the half before Bortles made a rare mistake when Penn State cornerback Malcolm Willis gambled and leaped in front of a pass down the left sideline. Willis held onto the ball as he crashed to the ground. The interception was the first in 233 attempts by Bortles, snapping the longest active streak in the nation.
It merely served as a speed bump on a night UCF showed the AAC is more than just No. 7 Louisville and a bunch of nobodies.
Bortles hit Josh Reese for a 25-yard touchdown pass to put UCF 28-10 early in the third quarter and it proved to be just enough cushion.
Penn State got its act together behind Zwinak – who had little trouble when allowed to go north-south instead of east-west — and wide receiver Allen Robinson. The junior caught nine passes for 143 yards and a touchdown that drew Penn State within 34-31 with 2:57 remaining.
Bortles, however, hit Worton to convert a third-down on the ensuing possession and the Knights ran out the clock. Bortles tumbled to the ground in celebration on the final snap as the chants of “U-C-F” echoed throughout cavernous Beaver Stadium as fans walked out in stunned silence.