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UCF Exposes Penn State's Mediocrity

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Quarterback Blake Bortles comfortably picked apart Penn State's defense last Saturday, marking the first time since 2001 that the Nittany Lions allowed more than 500 yards of offense. Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images.
Quarterback Blake Bortles comfortably picked apart Penn State's defense last Saturday, marking the first time since 2001 that the Nittany Lions allowed more than 500 yards of offense. Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images.

The Penn State Nittany Lions got whooped.

It was humiliating and humbling, but mostly humiliating for a team that has long prided itself on defensive excellence.

Hell, you don’t get nicknamed Linebacker U for giving up 34 points to the University of Central Florida.

This is the right time to take a reprieve from previous weeks’ soccer-style grading of players, the right time to take a step back and look at O’Brien’s Lions as a whole.

What happened at University Park last week has been brewing for nearly two years.

The team’s old guard — Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Matt McGloin — is gone, and their departed veteran leadership has left a hole in Happy Valley greater than the running lanes that Storm Johnson ran through last Saturday evening.

The defense is now led by DaQuan Jones and Glenn Carson, not a bad combination in the middle of any defense, but those two alone aren’t enough to put the brakes to a good offense. Carson can’t be the team’s only sure tackler, and Jones can’t be the only defensive lineman that is a pass-rush threat.

Real quick, are we sure it wasn’t an imposter wearing Deion Barnes’ No. 18 last week? If you saw him at all, you surely didn’t see him sacking a quarterback in Beaver Stadium. He got close to the quarterback in the first two games, but he was a missing person against UCF. So Penn State posed no pass rush whatsoever and allowed Blake Bortles — yeah, Blake Bortles — to torch the defense for 288 yards and a 74 percent completion rate.

But why? How could a once-proud defense become so swiss cheese?

The team’s cornerbacks are young, inexperienced and had not been tested deep before Bortles ripped them apart like they were Buffalo University. Even one of the team’s starting cornerbacks, Trevor Williams, was a wide receiver last year.

That’s what happens when you operate under limited scholarships. Players have to switch to positions they've never played before. Garry Gilliam, the team’s starting right tackle, played at tight end before adding 40 pounds to his frame this offseason. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, the team’s back-up safety, started at outside linebacker last week when Mike Hull had a knee injury.

Really, the team’s backup safety is a better option to start at a position he has never played than Ben Kline, the team’s backup outside linebacker?

Unfortunately, Linebacker U has become nearly Linebacker Less.

Penn State has a mere six linebackers under scholarship. Count ‘em: Glenn Carson, Mike Hull, Nyeem Wartman, Ben Kline, Gary Wooten and Brandon Bell.

Just five players are under scholarship in Penn State’s backfield: Christian Hackenberg, Tyler Ferguson, Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch.

While the young quarterbacks and running backs are bristling with potential, they lack composure. Hackenberg and Ferguson have each fumbled the ball in the pocket without being touched. Hackenberg has been in the process of being sacked six times, only to blindly get rid of the ball. Luckily, not one of those ill-advised passes has been picked off for an easy six points.

Zwinak, Belton and Lynch each have given up a sack this season and have trouble standing up blitzing defenders or cutting them down.

But, hey, maybe the good times are just around the corner.

Maybe Hackenberg will become the young stud quarterback that the Nittany Lions haven’t had since Kerry Collins led the team to an undefeated 1994 season.

Maybe this young team is just a diamond in the rough, going through the growing pains that it takes to one day be great.

First, they’ll have to find a way to not get humbled by mid-major offenses.