Penn State (0-0) vs. UCF (0-0)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Saturday, August 30, 8:30 a.m. (ET).
FACTS & STATS: Site: Croke Park Stadium (82,300) -- Dublin, Ireland. Television: ESPN2. Home Record: PSU 0-0, UCF 0-0. Away Record: PSU 0-0, UCF 0-0. Neutral Record: PSU 0-0, UCF 0-0. Conference Record: PSU 0-0, UCF 0-0. Series Record: Penn State leads, 2-1.
GAME NOTES: The Penn State Nittany Lions are set to usher in the James Franklin era in Dublin, Ireland, as they take on the UCF Knights at Croke Park Stadium on Saturday morning.
This marks the first game played on international turf in the 128-year history of Penn State's football program. Franklin, the former Vanderbilt head coach who replaced Bill O'Brien in January, takes over a Nittany Lions squad that won seven games and became bowl eligible for the second straight year. Led by sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg and buoyed by Franklin's first impact recruiting class, the team has high hopes for another successful campaign despite a continued postseason ban through 2015 from the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
UCF has won nine straight games dating back to last season, the third-longest active winning streak in the FBS. The Knights went 12-1 and swept their American Athletic Conference schedule, then knocked off high-powered Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, 52-42. After earning their first AP top-10 finish in school history (No. 10), and giving the AAC a BCS bowl victory in the league's first year, the Knights must now move on while star quarterback Blake Bortles (drafted No. 3 overall) and all-conference running back Storm Johnson (7th round) are both suiting up on Sundays.
PSU owns a 2-1 lead in the head-to-head series, although last season the Knights came into Beaver Stadium and claimed a 34-31 victory.
Hackenberg's debut season in Happy Valley netted him the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards (246.2 ypg) with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and seemed to get a better feel for major college football as the season progressed, culminating in a four-touchdown effort against Wisconsin in the final game. Hackenberg has worked on developing chemistry with a new receiving corps after losing all-conference wideout Allen Robinson to the NFL. Top rushers Zach Zwinak (989 yds, 12 TDs) and Bill Belton (803 yds, five TDs) both return.
Defensively, Penn State brings back seven starters led by senior defensive end C.J. Olaniyan, who posted 11 tackles for loss, including five sacks, and three forced fumbles in 2013. The unit will be counting on Olaniyan to continue being a disruptive force and replace some of the production lost from departed defensive tackle DaQuan Jones (11.5 TFL). At linebacker, senior Mike Hull is a popular preseason all-conference pick after ranking second on the team with 78 tackles in only 10 games last year. In the defensive backfield, the Nittany Lions return three starters. Cornerback Jordan Lucas and safety Ryan Keiser both picked off three passes a year ago, and that duo combined for 27 passes defended.
UCF's offense must find a new identity without Bortles and his 3,581 passing yards and 25 touchdowns from a year ago. Head coach George O'Leary named redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo the starting quarterback a little more than a week into preseason camp, setting the stage for DiNovo to become the first UCF freshman QB to start a season opener since Daunte Culpepper in 1995. With Storm Johnson no longer around after piling up 1,139 yards on the ground, William Stanback moves up the depth chart at running back. Last year as a true freshman, Stanback ran for 443 yards and six scores on 105 carries as Johnson's backup. The receiving corps is locked and loaded with leading pass catchers Rannell Hall (57 rec, 886 yds 5 TD), J.J. Worton (47-721-7) and Breshad Perriman (39-811-4) all back in the mix. The offensive line returns two starters.
The Knights ranked among the top-20 in the country in scoring defense last season (21.3 ppg), while allowing just 362 yards per game. Anchoring the unit is first-team all-conference linebacker Terrance Plummer, who finished with 110 tackles to go along with 2.5 sacks and a pair of interceptions. Troy Gray is another starter who will help out in the middle. The strength of the unit lies in the secondary, where safety Clayton Geathers and cornerback Jacoby Glenn roam. Geathers racked up 100 tackles last season while Glenn had 52 stops and 15 pass breakups, and both picked off two passes. Safety Brandon Alexander (63 tackles, three INTs) led the team in picks last year and cornerback Jordan Ozerities racked up 59 tackles. Up front, defensive tackle Demetris Anderson (seven TFL) and end Thomas Niles (eight TFL, four sacks) both return.
It will be interesting to see how, if at all, the time difference and unfamiliar atmosphere impacts each team. Even without their two biggest playmakers from a year ago, the Knights are certainly no pushover. But the Nittany Lions are more experienced where it counts, as Hackenberg looks to build on his successful first season under center.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Penn State 34, UCF 24
08/29 15:15:54 ET