UCF moved to 3-0 on the season and defeated a Big Ten team for the first time Saturday night. The Knights ran out to a 21-7 lead and held on late for a 34-31 victory over Penn State at Beaver Stadium.
UCF led 34-24 late in the game. But with under four minutes remaining, a special teams miscue set up Penn State (2-1) for a possible comeback. A snap over punter Caleb Houston’s head led to a loss of 18 yards after Houston picked up the ball and got a short kick off. Three plays later, Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg found wide receiver Allen Robinson in the end zone for a touchdown to make it 34-31, as close as Penn State had been since the first quarter.
The Nittany Lions elected to kick off deep and UCF took over at its own 25-yard line after a touchback with 2:51 remaining. A 13-yard pass from quarterback Blake Bortles to receiver J.J. Worton gave UCF a first down and created just enough of a cushion for the Knights to run out the clock. On fourth down with two seconds remaining, Bortles took the snap, ran back 14 yards, dropped to the turf and ignited a celebration on the UCF sideline.
“I knew we’d be all right,” Bortles said of his mindset as the team took the field with an opportunity to run the clock out and seal the victory. “They hadn’t stopped us all night.”
“Give credit to our players,” UCF head coach George O’Leary said. “We came to win a game and we got a great win. They’re celebrating right now. I told them before the game, they’ll feel either great joy or great sadness and they’re feeling great joy right now.”
UCF racked up 507 yards of offense in the contest. Bortles and Johnson led the way on offense. Bortles completed 20-of-27 passes for 288 yards and three scores, with one interception.
UCF entered the contest 0-7 against current Big Ten programs. The Knights are now 3-0 for the first time since 1988.
Johnson rushed for 117 yards and one TD, while also finding the end zone on a reception. J.J. Worton pulled in seven receptions for 101 yards, as well.
“We had a good plan and we executed it,” Bortles said. “We blocked up front, the receivers ran good routes and I just had to distribute the ball to the right places.”
Defensively, Terrance Plummer tallied 11 tackles and forced a huge fumble in the fourth quarter. Plummer’s forced fumble came with 5:43 remaining in the game against Penn State running back Zach Zwinak. The fumble was recovered by Sean Maag at the UCF 27 to thwart a Penn State scoring threat.
“I got to the running back and as I brought him down, I just tried to strike at the ball,” Plummer said of his big forced fumble. “I didn’t know we got it until everyone was cheering. It was a good moment.”
“I thought when we got that fumble recovery, it was going to be a difference-maker,” O’Leary said. “But Penn State bowed up. It’s nice to get a big win like that going into a bye week. I’m just happy for the UCF, for the program, the fan base and the people that were up here. We had a good crowd up here from UCF.”
To open the contest, UCF ran nearly seven minutes off the clock and traveled 89 yards in 13 plays. The drive was keyed by a huge 3rd-and-9 completion from Bortles to Godfrey. Three plays later, Bortles found Johnson in the right flat for a 4-yard touchdown, putting the Knights up 7-0. The Nittany Lions answered on the ensuing possession. A 44-yard strike from Hackenberg to Robinson keyed the drive, which was capped by a 4-yard plunge from Zach Zwinak to tie it at 7-7.
Johnson put together the longest run of his UCF career to put the Knights on top 14-7. He busted off a 58-yard scamper around right end, stiff-arming a defender in the final 10 yards and tight-roping the sideline before reaching paydirt. The Knights went on top 21-7 on a 5-yard, diving, foot-dragging catch in the back corner of the end zone by Worton. Jeff Godfrey put the Knights in position to score with a 49-yard run on the second play of the possession. Penn State added a 47-yard field goal late in the second to leave UCF with a 21-10 lead at the intermission.
The third quarter was like a prize fight, as the Knights and Nittany Lions traded blows. UCF extended its lead to 28-10 early in the third quarter. First, Bortles hit Worton for 44 yards down the middle of the field. He then found Josh Reese on the sideline for a 25-yard scoring strike. Penn State answered just four plays later. A 46-yard Hackenberg-to-Robinson pass set up a 9-yard Zwinak scoring run, pulling the Nittany Lions back within 11 points, 28-17.
Shawn Moffitt then added a 31-yard field goal with 2:30 left in the third to put the Knights up 31-17. Penn State pulled within seven, as close as it had been since the second quarter, when Zwinak scored his third TD of the game from one yard out. The score capped a seven-play, 81-yard drive for the Nittany Lions and made it 31-24 with 13:35 remaining in the contest.
UCF answered that score when Moffitt added another field goal – this one from 36 yards out – with 8:10 left in the contest, putting UCF on top 34-24, setting the stage for the wild finish.