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 the Penn State bench swarmed the field.
Saturday’s winners received the Dan Rooney Trophy, a specially commissioned football made of ancient Irish bog wood, as 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.
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 was 3 of 8 for 18 yards.
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 jet-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 bomb between two defenders to receiver DaeSean Hamilton. 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 was doomed from the start and he threw the ball away.
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 and threw for a third, a 10-yard bullet to Josh Reese with 11:31 left that narrowed Penn State’s lead to 20-17.