DUBLIN — UCF might have found its replacement for Blake Bortles. Unfortunately, the Knights didn't find him until the second half Saturday in a heartbreaking 26-24 loss to Penn State in Ireland.
Second-string quarterback Justin Holman accounted for all three UCF touchdowns, one in the air and two on the ground. His 6-yard run with just 1:13 left put the Knights ahead for the first time, 24-23, in front of a raucous 55,000-strong crowd in Dublin's Croke Park, a stadium that normally hosts Gaelic football matches, not American football games.
Those 73 seconds proved to be just enough time for Penn State's sophomore sensation, Christian Hackenberg, to drive the Nittany Lions 55 yards in eight plays for a game-winning 36-yard field goal.
Coach George O'Leary spoke bluntly — at times defensively — when questioned afterward about why he started redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo instead of the more athletic Holman, only to bench DiNovo halfway through his first start after he went just 3 for 8 for a paltry 18 yards. Holman finished 9 of 14 for 204 yards.
Asked whether Holman had ever showed signs of Saturday's performance in earlier practice sessions, O'Leary snapped back, "If he did, I would have been playing him."
During preseason training, the coach said of Holman, "he was high, inefficient in his throws. Today he went out and played like the guy who should have got the nod."
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.
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 and specially commissioned for the game. Cannons blasted blue-and-white streamers and confetti into the air.
Hackenberg spoiled a stunning performance by Holman, who came on for the second drive of the second half. He almost immediately connected with star wide receiver Breshad Perriman on a 50-yard bomb that put UCF at Penn State's 1-yard line. Holman then scored his first TD on a quarterback sneak to pull UCF within 13-10 with 2:39 left in the third quarter.
O'Leary praised both Holman and Hackenberg, describing the Penn State QB as a player that "everybody in the country would like to have." He expressed bewilderment at DiNovo's poor play.
"I said at halftime that he's not moving the chains, I didn't like the way he was handling things out there. He just seemed to be all over the place," O'Leary said.
He said the UCF receivers were consistently open in both halves, but DiNovo too often misfired or hesitated.
"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 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.
Holman's 10-yard bullet to Josh Reese with 11:31 left narrowed Penn State's lead to 20-17.
UCF's defense forced Penn State to settle for a third field goal with 3:30 left to make it 23-17. Then Holman marched his team down the field — straight into a 4th down-and-10 crisis on the Penn State 37.
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.