For Christian Hackenberg the third act might be the toughest.
The true freshman quarterback makes his third start for Penn State (2-0) against the UCF Knights (2-0) in a new environment –Beaver Stadium at night.
While Hackenberg shook off a slow start in his first start in front of the Nittany Lion faithful last week, he’ll be under the lights on Saturday with the spotlight firmly focused on the 18-year-old.
After throwing for 271 yards in his college debut, he chalked up 311 more yards in his second start last week. If that trend continues on Saturday, the Knights defense will be in for more than it can handle despite giving up just seven points in eight quarters of football so far in 2013.
While UCF’s scoring defense looks great on paper, the likes of Akron and Florida International don’t stack up quite like Bill O’Brien’s Nittany Lions.
For one, neither the Panthers nor Zips had a quarterback as talented as Hackenberg, who has already racked up close to 600 yards passing and three touchdowns through two games. And certinaly neither had the veteran offensive line and stable of running backs the Knights will face on Saturday, either.
Penn State comes in following a 45-7 blowout of Eastern Michigan in a game that saw both Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch rush for 108 yards. The Nittany Lions rolled the Eagles for 251 total yards and five rushing touchdowns on the day.
The Knights are coming off a 10-win 2012 season, and have outscored their opponents 76-7 in the first two games of 2013. They’ve also given up just 323 total yards combined in the two games, both wins.
On offense, UCF is led by junior quarterback Blake Bortles, who has amassed 528 yards and four touchdowns in two games while completing nearly 70% of his passes. The second-year starter threw for 3,059 yards and 25 touchdowns last season while completing 62.9% of his passes.
Bortles really spreads the ball around; as seven Knights have caught two or more passes this year and nine different Knights have registered a catch. Rannell Hall leads the team with seven catches for 181 yards and a touchdown.
Storm Johnson mans the backfield for the Knights, and has scored five touchdowns already in 2013. The former Miami Hurricane has 38 carries for 188 yards on the season. On Saturday his 4.9 yard per carry average will be put to the test as the Lions have allowed just 1.8 yards per carry in two games against Syracuse and Eastern Michigan.
But the Nittany Lions’ biggest test on Saturday will be containing Bortles and the UCF passing attack. Stopping the run has become a staple of Penn State football, and it’s a shock when an opponent finds chunks of yardage against the Lions in the run game.
On offense, O’Brien’s Lions need to do a better job of converting on third down, as they’re just two of 26 to start the season. They also need to protect the ball better, six turnovers in two games is far too many.
But when they’re not looking at a third down conversion or turning the ball over, the results have been pretty good. Hackenberg has showed flashed of brilliance in his first eight collegiate quarters, Allen Robinson looks just as unstoppable as he was a year ago (14 catches, 262 yards and two touchdowns), and the running game got going last week after tough sledding against Syracuse.
In week three, the offense needs to keep improving under the young quarterback with help from a stable running game and the defense needs to continue to be rock solid in order to move to 3-0. While the Knights are a tougher challenge than Eastern Michigan, the Lions shouldn’t have too much trouble taking this one 28-10.
Key matchup: Penn State rushing attack vs. UCF’s front seven
The Knights have done a good job stopping the run in two games (165 yards allowed) and could turn this into a game early if they can make the Nittany Lion offense one-dimensional. Without a running game to lean on, and a better defense than he faced last week, life could get hairy for Hackenberg, but it all hinges on what the Lions can get on the ground to start.
Series note: the teams will meet in Dublin next season…