DUBLIN - Penn State won a thrilling season opener with a 36-yard field goal as time expired to defeat the University of Central Florida 26-24 in front of a raucous 55,000-strong crowd in Ireland.
Behind second-half replacement quarterback Justin Holman, the Knights appeared to have scored their own unlikely come-from-behind victory when Holman scored on a 6-yard touchdown run to put UCF up 24-23 with 1:13 left.
But Christian 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 Penn State players stormed the field in joy. Hackenberg ran 8 yards for a first down on a 4th-down play in Penn State's own half of the field during the final drive.
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 the Knights' 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," said Franklin, who bear-hugged and lifted up his kicker moments after victory.
Penn State players received the Dan Rooney Trophy, a football made of ancient Irish bog wood that was specially commissioned for the game. Cannons blasted blue-and-white streamers and confetti into the air at Dublin's Croke Park, a stadium that normally hosts Gaelic football matches, not American football games.
Both teams agreed to play a game in Dublin for their own reasons. Penn State was seeking an overseas trip and a bowl-like experience for a squad that is barred by NCAA sanctions from postseason contention until 2016, while UCF — a year away from its breakthrough 12-1 season and Top 10 finish in national rankings — was seeking an international showcase.
Hackenberg spoiled a stunning performance by Holman, who came on for the second drive of the second half after coach George O'Leary benched the ineffective Pete DiNovo. The redshirt freshman had been 3 of 8 for just 18 yards and gave up a drive-killing sack on his final play.
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 of DiNovo.
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 let-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, who set a Penn State receiving record for freshmen with 11 catches for 165 yards. 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 game tempo accelerated as soon as Holman entered the game. He ran for two touchdowns, the first a one-yard plunge to pull UCF within 13-10 with 2:39 left in the third quarter. And he threw for a third, a 10-yard bullet to Josh Reese with 11:31 left that narrowed Penn State's lead to 20-17.
Between those two UCF scores, Hattenberg pulled off the longest play of the game. On 3rd and 17 deep in his own half, he lobbed a bomb to Geno Lewis, who had gotten behind three defenders and ran untouched for a 79-yard TD.
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.
UCF's defense forced Penn State to settle for a third field goal with 3:30 left to make it 23-17. Then Holman, who finished 9 of 14 for 204 yards, 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.
"He's what a college quarterback should look like," O'Leary said of Hackenberg. "He delivered the ball on time and with great efficiency. We should've had our hands on him more, but he was the difference in the game."