UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Recalling his time at Georgia Tech as an assistant under George O'Leary more than a decade ago, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien remembers those teams' defining characteristic as physicality. The Yellow Jackets were always resilient. It seemed to give them an advantage no matter the opponent.
"When you have a physical, resilient, tough football team, then you've got a chance to win games," O'Brien said.
Central Florida, which is that type of team, will face Penn State today, likely giving the Nittany Lions their toughest test of the non-conference season. The Knights are undefeated, having allowed one touchdown in two games, and have assumed the characteristics O'Brien identifies with O'Leary at the helm.
He has been at Central Florida for almost a decade now. After his infamous firing from Notre Dame for falsifying his resume, O'Leary spent three seasons in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings as defensive coordinator before accepting the Central Florida position.
Penn State (2-0) vs. Central Florida (2-0), 6 p.m., Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa. The Nittany Lions are favored by 5.
- TV, Radio, Internet:
Big Ten Network; KQV-AM (1410) and Penn State Sports Network; www.Go-PSUsports.com.
- Penn State:
Linebacker Mike Hull, who missed the Eastern Michigan game last week, should play. ... Wide receiver Brandon Felder has 12 receptions in the first two games after beginning last season with no receptions in his first two. ... Christian Hackenberg has been sacked seven times in two games. At this pace, that will be 42 for the season. Penn State gave up 21 in 2012.
- Central Florida:
Ranks fourth in scoring defense (3.5 points a game). ... Seeks first 3-0 start since 1988 and first as a Division I-A team. ... Three freshmen have played running back and junior Storm Johnson is tied for the Division I-A lead in rushing touchdowns with five.
- Hidden stat:
Central Florida has not defeated a Big Ten Conference team in eight tries. It lost to Penn State in 2004, 37-13.
The program was a mess when he arrived. Central Florida had stumbled to 3-9 after posting three consecutive winning seasons. In O'Leary's first year, the Knights were 0-11. But he quickly turned it around.
The next season, they were 8-5 and have finished above .500 in four of the past six. Central Florida this year has defeated Akron and Florida International. Neither team will compete for championships, but the Knights defense has proven adept at snuffing out big plays. Just once did Akron complete a play longer than 15 yards. Florida International completed plays of that length just twice. Penn State in two games has 21 plays that went for 15 or more yards.
"In order to get an explosive play, we're going to have to work real hard to come up with something we think will work and then execute it on game day," O'Brien said. "This is a very difficult defense to go against, and you can see that every snap on the tape."
Central Florida, as strong as it has been the past five years under O'Leary, lacks a definitive regular-season victory against a quality major-conference opponent (it did defeat Georgia in a bowl game in 2010).
Penn State provides that opportunity.
"I think this is a true test on how we measure up as a football team and see where we're at," O'Leary told reporters this week.
Mark Dent: email@example.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.