Penn State’s Sam Ficken hit a 36-yard field goal as time expired Saturday, lifting Penn State to a 26-24 victory over UCF in the season-opener at the Croke Park Classic.
“It was a good college game,” UCF head coach George O’Leary said. “I’m disappointed in the outcome.”
A Penn State comeback was necessary after a spirited comeback from the Knights. UCF trailed 20-10 at the end of the third quarter. But sophomore quarterback Justin Holman sparked the Knights. Holman had already led one touchdown drive late in the third quarter after coming off the bench. With 11:31 remaining, he found wide receiver Josh Reese on a slant at the goal line on a 3rd-and-goal play, pulling UCF within three, 20-17.
After Penn State extended its lead to 23-17 with a Ficken field goal, Holman went back to work. With 3:30 remaining, the Knights took over at their own 25-yard line. After a pair of passes to J.J. Worton and Breshad Perriman to put UCF at the Penn State 43, three straight misfires led to a 4th-and-10 situation. Holman then found a leaping Reese, who made a falling-backward, fingertip catch at the Penn State 6-yard line. Holman took care of the final six yards on a quarterback draw on the very next play.
UCF held its first lead, 24-23, with 1:13 remaining.
“I thought Justin went in and did a very good job,” O’Leary said. “He was really the sparkplug for the offense, making plays.”
But Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg then engineered a drive of his own. The Nittany Lion signal-caller converted a 4th-and-3 with an 8-yard scramble. Three consecutive passes moved Penn State to the UCF 19 with three seconds left, setting up Ficken’s game-winning field goal.
“I was disappointed in the way the defense played, too many big plays given up in key situations,” O’Leary said. “You expect a defense that (has experience), down the stretch, when you have a chance to put the game away, you’ve got to stop them. Give credit to Penn State. They made plays when they had to make them.”
The UCF offense had trouble in the first half, managing just three points and 35 total yards. Meanwhile, the Knights bent but didn’t break in the first half, allowing just 10 points on 221 yards.
The Knights trailed 10-3 at the intermission. Ficken hit one of his three field goals midway through the third period to put Penn State up 13-3. But UCF answered when Holman found J.J. Worton across the middle for 18 yards and later connected with Perriman on long toss down to the Penn State 1-yard line. A QB sneak pulled UCF within three, 13-10. Penn State pushed its lead to 20-10 when Eugene Lewis got behind the defense for a 79-yard touchdown pass, setting up the exciting fourth quarter.