Not often does college football produce moral victories; they come in wins, sure, but finding them in losses is the only silver lining in defeat.
As the UCF Knights broke out the victory formation on Saturday night at Beaver Stadium, the Penn State football team was left to wonder just what went wrong in the 34-31 upset.
They could have stewed on the 507 total yards their defense surrendered. They could have wondered about how 455 total yards of their own weren’t enough to win, and they could thought about the six third-down conversions they couldn’t convert and how they could have changed the outcome.
But what they should think about is how resilient they were in defeat.
After enduring a UCF blitzkrieg in the first half that saw the Knights take a 21-10 lead into the break, the shell-shocked Nittany Lions could have packed it in. They could have let Blake Bortles’ third touchdown pass of the game to push the deficit to 18 early in the third be the end.
With no bowl game in sight for three years and a record that will come with an asterisk in time, the Lions could have called off the dogs and nobody would have blinked.
It’s hard to keep pushing forward if the reward at the end of the journey has been taken away already, but this group is –and always will be- different.
Zach Zwinak found the end zone just 1:32 after the UCF lead ballooned to 18 and the Lions had hope once again, as the crowd again energized. The bruising tailback was a shining star for the Lions, racking up 128 yards on the night.
The momentum quickly evaporated as the Knights held onto the ball with a steady running game on the back of Storm Johnson, who rushed for a career-high 117 yards. UCF’s offense controlled the ball all night thanks to Johnson and Bortles, who was 20 of 27 for 288 yards.
A late field goal in the third quarter from Shawn Moffitt stretched the lead back to 14 for the Knights at 31-17 heading into the fourth quarter.
It was Zwinak again who tried to ignite the comeback as his one-yard score pulled the comeback within reach once again at 31-24 with 13:35 remaining. The Lions could feel the comeback and the building was back in a frenzy, ready for a big play to push the momentum firmly to the Penn State sideline.
But the Knights wouldn’t let the momentum swing back, instead they chalked up a 10-play, 53-yard scoring drive spanning 5:25 of game clock that ended with another Moffitt field goal. The Nittany Lions’ defense couldn’t get off the field all night, the Knights were 7 for 12 on third down.
And when the Penn State offense did finally get the ball back, they were down two scores once again and could ill-afford to waste a drive. After moving the ball down the field into Knights territory, Zwinak –who had a monster game– fumbled the ball away on the UCF 27 yard line.
The ensuing UCF drive stalled after just one first down and got the Lions the ball back deep in Knights territory with 3:48 remaining. It took the Lions just three plays to find the end zone as Christian Hackenberg connected with Allen Robinson from five yards out to bring them within one score at 34-31.
But with 2:38 left on the clock, the Lions’ offense wouldn’t get a chance to put any more points on the scoreboard.
The Knights ran the rest of the clock out thanks to Bortles’ completion to JJ Worton for 13 yards on 2nd and 9. The play gave the Knights a first down, and a chance to salt away the rest of the clock. With no way to stop the clock, the Lions watched the visiting Knights celebrate their fist win over a Big Ten team.
Even thought the comeback fell short, the Lions should be proud of the way they competed and finished a tough, close game. Rallying around each other and playing as one team when a loss doesn’t necessarily mean much more than a number is a fine takeaway.
The loss drops the Nittany Lions to 2-1 on the season, but provides a learning opportunity for a young team during the week with a date with Kent State (1-2) on the horizon.