It's already been way more than 24 hours since Sam Ficken kicked the ball through the uprights to clinch a 26-24 opening week win for Penn State over Central Florida, but I'm going to analyze the heck out of it anyway. It's not like Penn State played a cupcake like so many other Big Ten teams did this weekend. It's not like I blame them. A good warmup game against a MACrifice is much more preferable than seeing your season go down the drain before it really gets started. Penn State knows how to schedule tomato cans as well as anyone.
Thanks to the sanctions, though, a loss to UCF wouldn't do anything to harm the Lions' playoff chances, but Penn State won anyway, and we learned a lot about the team in the process. Here are the five main thoughts I had.
1. Christian Hackenberg did not have any trouble finding a new favorite target
The quarterback didn't waste any time introducing his audience to DaeSean Hamilton. The redshirt freshman sat out 2013 due to injury, but it's pretty clear that he studied the playbook very well. Hamilton, who is from Hackenberg's home state of Virginia, appeared to have a telepathic connection with his quarterback. Hackenberg found him early and often, with Hamtilon accumulating more than 100 receiving yards in the first half alone.
A lot of pundits were worried about how Hackenberg would perform without Allen Robinson, a wide receiver whose leaping ability and terrific hands turned ugly passes into beautiful completions in 2013. Worry no more, because Hamilton showed a similar ability to battle defensive backs for the ball and win. If Hamilton doesn't approach Robinson's productivity it will probably be because Geno Lewis takes some targets away. The junior wide receiver was quiet in the first half, but exploded in the second half with a couple of long hauls to give himself a team-leading 173 receiving yards.
2. James Franklin as a game manager is already driving me crazy
The end of the first half was a game management nightmare. Up 10-3, the Lions had driven to the UCF 24-yard line with time winding down. A dubious offensive pass interference call on freshman Chris Godwin pushed the ball back to the 39 on 3rd-and-long, and suddenly a field goal was no sure thing. Instead of calling a screen or a draw to move the team within Ficken's range, Hackenberg ended up lobbing a prayer into the end zone that went unanswered. Now out of field goal range on 4th-and-forever, Franklin put his offense on the field once again. The result was a sack.
When asked about the sequence at halftime, Franklin said he was being "aggressive." I'd say he was playing like he was down by four points instead of up by seven. Just make it a two-score game there. A field goal would have given PSU a 10-point halftime lead and a bigger cushion at the end of the game. Later, in the second half, Franklin's "aggressive" approach saw the Lions punt from the UCF 40-yard line. What the heck, coach?
3. Hackenberg looks like he's already one of the top quarterbacks in the country
I can complain about some sloppy throws, two of which were intercepted and a couple more could have been. I can throw a lot of shade Hackenberg's way, but that would be unfair. The kid threw for 454 yards, which is a Penn State single-game record. He did so while completing 68 percent of his passes. That's phenomenal for a sophomore playing in his 13th career game against an experienced UCF secondary. Most impressive about Hackenberg's game was the touch he put on his deep throws to lead his receivers towards the end zone as well as the way he moved in the pocket. Hackenberg isn't a runner by any means, but he showed the ability to avoid the rush and use his arm to complete throws at odd angles.
I really wish Franklin would have run the ball more with the lead in the second half. The offensive line is still inexperienced and asking them to pass protect for around 50 plays created some dangerous situations. Hackenberg looked like a stud, though, and that's the most important thing to take away for Penn State fans.
4. The offensive line is a work in progress, but it's not as bad as some feared
Like the wide receiver issue, this is another thing that didn't seem like a huge problem, at least against UCF. There were some breakdowns and a few too many defensive lineman in the backfield, sure. There were other times, especially on the final drive, when Hackenberg needed extra time to complete a pass and he got it. You don't complete as many long passes as the quarterback did without receiving good protection, and that's what the line was able to provide when Penn State needed it most.
The rushing numbers certainly don't look good for this game, but I thought the line got good push when it needed a first down. The play calling didn't call for many runs outside of short-yardage situations. Throw a couple of more draws into the gameplan and the rushing figures would look much better -- the UCF safeties simply had to play back with the way Hamilton and Lewis were playing. Instead, Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan ran almost exclusively in power situations. More often than not, the line did its job and created enough space to move the chains.
5. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop loves him some blitzing
After several years of Tom Bradley's boring Cover-3 and some mixed results from Ted Roof and John Butler, it looks like Penn State may finally have a defensive coordinator who doesn't want to drop his linebackers into coverage all the time. Shoop kept the pressure on UCF for most of the game no matter who the Knights had under center. Some might be critical of the constant blitzing during the final drive, but I thought it was the right plan. UCF quarterback Justin Holman was able to find J.J. Worton in the middle of the field whenever he had time, and the Penn State blitzing made it tougher for crossing routes to develop. If not for an outstanding catch by Josh Reese on UCF's final possession, the comeback would have been nipped in the bud.
Even if the Penn State defense failed to hold onto the lead late, Shoop's aggressive approach was the right plan. UCF was either going to turn the ball over on downs, throw an interception, or score with plenty of time left on the clock. The third option wasn't ideal, but it ended up working for the Lions.