UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State had just failed again on third down, its season-long bugaboo, and on this particular occasion, Central Florida cornerback Jordan Ozerities drove the point home. As the ball sailed over intended wide receiver Brandon Felder's head, Ozerities shoved him to the turf, eliciting a chorus of boos.
It wasn't a penalty. It wasn't a late hit or targeting -- just forceful, a significant blow.
Play after play, drive after drive, Central Florida did this to Penn State Saturday night in its 34-31 victory, leading by 14 at one point. The Nittany Lions (2-1) pulled back within three, the crowd of 92,000-plus roared and the Knights (3-0) botched a snap, but a comeback wasn't quite in order. Penn State had fallen into too deep a hole and never played sharply enough to climb out.
If you had to attach a physical distance to this hole, 507 yards would be a good place to start. Central Florida's offense gained that much, depleting Penn State with several plays longer than 15 yards. The Knights threw the ball effectively -- quarterback Blake Bortles finished 20 for 27 for 288 yards and three touchdowns -- and ran the ball, too. Their running backs gained 218 yards on 5.8 yards per carry.
"We weren't playing Penn State defense at all," defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. "Giving up that many yards is unacceptable."
Despite the obvious flaws, the Nittany Lions came close to escaping their ditch and at least made it a thriller. With 2:51 left, quarterback Christian Hackenberg connected with wide receiver Allen Robinson for a 5-yard touchdown. This came after Central Florida snapped the ball way over punter Caleb Houston's head.
On the ensuing Central Florida possession, the Knights got one first down and then ran out the clock. The polish and experience of their offense was readily apparent. The Knights weren't lowly Eastern Michigan, or a Syracuse team searching for an identity in the season opener. They were led by a quarterback who had been mistake-free, as Bortles threw 232 completions without an interception until safety Malcolm Willis picked him off in the second quarter.
On the first drive of the game, Bortles completed a pass to wide receiver Jeff Godfrey for 28 yards. The Knights would score on a simple 4-yard pass to running back Storm Johnson.
The second quarter gave way to more of Johnson. He came into the game tied for the Division I-A lead in rushing touchdowns and showed why. Johnson ran 58 yards for a touchdown, nearly untouched.
Central Florida then took a 21-7 lead on a 5-yard pass from Bortles to J.J. Worton, part of an eight-play, 89-yard drive. Bortles always had plenty of time to throw, and his wide receivers excelled against inexperienced cornerbacks Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams.
By halftime, Central Florida had 289 total yards. Penn State had allowed just 260 to Syracuse and 183 to Eastern Michigan. The Nittany Lions had a puzzle to solve defensively and never did.
"We tried everything," defensive coordinator John Butler said. "That's the one thing I know I can say. We emptied the game plan. We tried to play man, we tried to play zone, we tried to play half-man, half-zone. They did a good job."
A second-half offensive spurt propelled Penn State to within seven and then three after Robinson's touchdown. But the same problems struck. Missed tackles, a lack of third-down conversions, a porous secondary, bad penalties and a fumble at the worst time all prevented Penn State from undoing its unraveling.
Afterward, coach Bill O'Brien deferred most everything to film. He didn't want to say too much until he had seen it.
Truth is, and this is a plus for Penn State, he has seen games like this. The past year has largely been positive for Penn State, but losses like those against Virginia and Ohio last season could have sent many teams into a tailspin.
The majority of the time, Penn State has regrouped, and the players said they believe they can do that again.
O'Brien said he told his players he was with them "through thick and thin." Those like offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach are excited to be there with him.
"There's a lot of football left in the season," Dieffenbach said.breaking - psusports - sportscollegedistrict
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05