DUBLIN (AP) — 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.
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