Penn State Beats Central Florida In Front of 55,000 in Dublin, Ireland

First ever overseas game for Penn State and Central Florida a thriller!


Penn State won a thrilling season opener with a 36-yard field goal as time expired to defeat the University of Central Florida 26-24 in front of a raucous 55,000-strong crowd in Ireland. This was the largest crowd to watch a football game in Europe by far this year.

Behind second-half replacement quarterback Justin Holman, the UCF Knights appeared to have scored their own unlikely come-from-behind victory when Holman scored on a 6-yard touchdown run to put UCF up 24-23 with 1:13 left.

But Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg – capping a 32-for-47, 454-yard performance – coolly directed a seven-play drive to set up Sam Ficken’s fourth successful field goal as the Penn State bench swarmed the field. Hackenberg ran 8 yards for a first down on a 4th-down play in Penn State’s own half of the field during the final drive.

NCAA Football: Penn State vs Central Florida

Saturday’s win was the first for new Penn State coach James Franklin, who declared his pride in a team that wasn’t rattled by UCF’s go-ahead TD.

“There was only a minute or so left in the game, and I looked across the sideline and there wasn’t doubt in anybody’s eye. Everybody believed. They believed in Hack. They believed in Ficken,” Franklin said.

On the field, Penn State players received the Dan Rooney Trophy, a football made of ancient Irish bog wood that was specially commissioned for the game. Cannons blasted blue-and-white streamers and confetti into the air at Dublin’s Croke Park, a stadium that normally hosts Gaelic football matches, not American football games.

NCAA Football: Penn State vs Central Florida

Hackenberg spoiled a stunning performance by Holman, who came on for the second drive of the second half after coach George O’Leary benched the ineffective Pete DiNovo. The redshirt freshman had been 3 of 8 for just 18 yards and gave up a drive-killing sack on his final play.

O’Leary praised both Holman and Hackenberg, describing the Penn State QB as a player that “everybody in the country would like to have.”

“Justin, give him credit,” he said of the replacement quarterback. “He went out there and made the throws. He was the spark plug in the second half offensively.”

Penn State ended the first half up 10-3, but should have been ahead by more as UCF struggled to move the ball at all. Both teams looked jet-lagged in what was the first overseas game in either school’s history.

The Nittany Lions’ opening drive was extended by a roughing-the-kicker penalty, then Hackenberg dropped a 44-yard pass between two defenders to receiver DaeSean Hamilton. Zach Zwinak finally punched the ball in from the 1-yard line on his third attempt to put Penn State up 7-0.

A 68-yard kickoff return by Jordan Akins gave UCF the ball on Penn State’s 23, but O’Leary gambled and lost with a 4th down decision to go for it on PSU’s 1-yard line. DiNovo’s rollout straight into a pass rush ended with a throwaway.

UCF cornerback Jacoby Glenn made a diving interception on Hackenberg’s next possession, but the Knights could manage only a 36-yard Shawn Moffitt field goal to make the score 10-3.

The game tempo accelerated as soon as Holman entered the game. He ran for two touchdowns, the first a one-yard plunge to pull UCF within 13-10 with 2:39 left in the third quarter. And he threw for a third, a 10-yard bullet to Josh Reese with 11:31 left that narrowed Penn State’s lead to 20-17.

Penn State action 2

Between those two UCF scores, Hattenberg pulled off the longest play of the game. On 3rd and 17 deep in his own half, he lobbed a bomb to Geno Lewis, who had gotten behind three defenders and ran untouched for a 79-yard TD.

The start of the fourth quarter featured a rat-a-tat three turnovers in 52 seconds.

Hackenberg, rolling right and under pressure from defensive tackle Demetris Anderson, saw his pass picked off on the UCF 39-yard line by cornerback Jordan Ozerities.

On the very next play Holman suffered his only miscue, failing to keep hold of the ball during a play-action move. Defensive tackle Anthony Zettel recovered.

Two plays later, Chris Godwin took a bubble-screen pass and got hit hard by two defenders, particularly Glenn, whose low-shoulder tackle popped the ball loose again. Strong safety Clayton Geathers recovered.

UCF’s defense forced Penn State to settle for a third field goal with 3:30 left to make it 23-17. Then Holman, who finished 9 of 14 for 204 yards, marched his team down the field – straight into a 4th down-and-10 crisis on the Penn State 37.

Penn State fans 2

As the heavily pro-Penn State crowd roared, Holman fired a long ball down the left sideline that looked overthrown. But Reese leaped backward and caught the ball with both hands as he fell on his back at the 6. Holman scored on the ground the next play, leaving too much time on the clock for Hackenberg.

“He’s what a college quarterback should look like,” O’Leary said of Hackenberg. “He delivered the ball on time and with great efficiency. We should’ve had our hands on him more, but he was the difference in the game.”

This is the fifth time since 1988 that an American college game has been played in Dublin, Ireland. Notre Dame, not surprisingly, has played twice, both times against Navy. The Fighting Irish won both contests, most recently in 2012. This was the largest crowd ever for the game though, surpassing the 45,525 mark set when Pittsburgh beat Rutgers 46-29 in 1989.

NCAA Football: Penn State vs Central Florida

Roger Kelly is an editor and a writer for AFI. A former PR Director the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League for 7 years, he now lives in Sweden writing about and scouting American Football throughout the world.