QB matchup to test Nittany Lions
Five things to look for as Penn State plays the Central Florida Knights in a game between two teams that are 2-0 but haven’t beaten a quality opponent yet and still are trying to find out how good they are themselves.
No. 1: QB matchup
It’s a good one, a really good one.
Penn State fans know all about Christian Hackenberg and his potential. But if you don’t already know by now about Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, then you probably think the Nittany Lions will win this game easily.
Bortles is a very talented, skilled passer, something PSU rarely sees because its non-conference opponents generally aren’t all that good and because Big Ten teams seldom rely heavily on throwing the ball.
A 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior, Bortles uses the entire field, so the Lions’ pass coverage will be tested in all areas.
Bortles is rated the 10th-best quarterback prospect in the country for the 2015 NFL draft by CBSSports.com (No. 9 is Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, so that’s good company). He has thrown 217 consecutive passes without an interception, and in two games this season he’s 30-of-43 for 528 yards and two TDs.
Now, that was against Akron and Florida International, and it’s hard to put much stock in what UCF did against those weak teams. But Bortles is supposed to be good regardless of the competition, and how he fares today will largely determine the outcome.
No. 2: PSU pressure
Bortles will pick apart the defense if he has time to throw, so it will be up to end Deion Barnes and tackle DaQuan Jones to prevent that from happening. The Lions need to get in the quarterback’s face early and often, forcing bad decisions and bad throws.
Look for Central Florida to double-team Jones, who is off to a great start this season, so others on the line and/or blitzing linebackers will have to get to Bortles.
No. 3: Let’s get physical
Bill O’Brien has said repeatedly that a George O’Leary team will play physical, and that should be a big part of today’s game.
When you play a rugged, physical opponent, all the hard hitting frequently leads to players getting banged up or injured. That’s a big concern for the Lions because of the depth problems, so they will have to hope for some luck their key players can avoid any issues.
If everyone’s healthy, Penn State should win this game. But the difference between the teams is narrow enough that one or two guys going down could turn things in favor of the Knights.
Central Florida has 69 players on its roster from the state of Florida. The Knights aren’t getting the elite talent like Florida State, Florida and Miami, but there are so many good players in the state that even a program like UCF can succeed with home-grown talent.
The Knights players might not have been elite recruits, but many of them played against top stars in high school and know what it takes to compete. This isn’t some pushover directional team like an Eastern Michigan, and in numerous positions on the field the Knights could have a better player than PSU.
No. 4: Efficient offense
Penn State can’t afford the kind of mistakes on offense that it’s made the first two games. The 2-for-26 conversion rate on third down is dreadful – last in the country – and can be attributed in large part to big mistakes on first and second down that led to third-and-longs.
The Lions have plenty of weapons to score a lot of points, and they should do just that as long as they avoid turnovers and costly penalties.
No. 5: Player to watch
We’ll go with two players this week – Penn State cornerbacks Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas.
The two sophomores have been good so far, but they haven’t faced the kind of challenges they’ll get today from the diverse UCF passing game. Lucas and Williams will get tested by receivers Rannell Hall, J.J. Worton and Breshad Perriman (son of former NFL receiver Brett Perriman), and if they’re in man coverage as expected, they’ll have to be sharp.
Penn State’s linebackers also will be put to the test in coverage underneath, so expect converted safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong to play a lot because of his coverage skills.
Prediction: PSU, 30-24