STATE COLLEGE (AP) — Like most of his teammates, UCF was not the first college of choice for quarterback Blake Bortles.
Bortles ended up with the Knights when the big boys from the BCS never called, a snub that fueled arguably the most stunning night in the program’s history.
Bortles passed for 288 yards and three touchdowns and UCF edged Penn State 34-31 on Saturday night, leading all the way to give the newly minted American Athletic Conference a needed shot of respectability.
“We definitely play with a chip on our shoulder, I know I do,” Bortles said. “We didn’t have the offers from the big schools. I know I didn’t. But when we come here and we play, we want to make sure they know we can play with them.”
Consider the message delivered.
Storm Johnson ran for a career-high 117 yards and a score and added a touchdown reception as the Knights (3-0) beat a Big Ten team for the first time, a milestone moment for a program whose checkered past includes the occasional head-turning triumph but also more than its share of near misses.
Things grew tight late after UCF allowed the Nittany Lions (2-1) to whittle an 18-point deficit to three when Allen Robinson hauled in a 5-yard touchdown with 2:51 left.
Instead of panicking, the Knights pressed on. Bortles found J.J. Worton to convert a first down, allowing UCF to drain the clock. On fourth down with 2 seconds left and the ball near midfield, Bortles took the snap and tumbled backward while the scoreboard flashed all zeroes and chants of “UCF!” echoed throughout an otherwise silent Beaver Stadium.
Coach George O’Leary called it the biggest win in his decade on the job, a list that includes an upset over Georgia in the Liberty Bowl three years ago.
“It’s a bigger win because it happened today,” O’Leary said with a laugh.
More may be on the way after the Knights ripped Penn State for 507 yards, the highest total given up by the Nittany Lions under coach Bill O’Brien.
“We didn’t tackle very well, they blocked us, they made some plays,” O’Brien said. “Give them a lot of credit, they had a good plan. We made mistakes on both sides of the ball.”
Zach Zwinak rushed for 128 yards and three touchdowns for Penn State but also fumbled inside UCF territory with less than 6 minutes remaining, blunting a late rally.
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg completed 21 of 28 passes for 262 yards and a touchdown but the Nittany Lions couldn’t quite catch the faster, sleeker Knights after falling behind 28-10 early in the second half.
“We knew they were big,” Bortles said. “We knew we were going to be faster and be able to get outside and make some plays happen.”
O’Brien served as offensive assistant under George O’Leary at Georgia Tech from 1995-01 and reached out to his mentor about how to revive the Nittany Lions shortly after taking over in January, 2012.
While O’Brien’s tenure has been an unqualified success, the student still has a few things to learn from the teacher. And O’Brien’s players still have a thing or two to learn about finishing.
“It hurts,” Hackenberg said. “I feel like I could have done some things better. But at the end of the day, UCF deserves all the credit. They played better than we did today.”
UCF did whatever it wanted for long stretches, using a variety of formations to keep Penn State off balance.
“We tried everything,” Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler said. “That’s the one thing I know I can say is we emptied the game plan.”
The Knights were hardly intimidated by the atmosphere or a Penn State defense that came in allowing just 221 yards per game. UCF easily topped that total in the first half alone. Bortles calmly led UCF on a 13-play, 89-yard drive on its first possession, with Johnson finishing it off by taking a swing pass and slipping into the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown.
UCF was in control nearly the whole way, the only real slip coming late in the first half when Penn State cornerback Malcolm Willis gambled and leaped in front of a pass down the left sideline. Willis held onto the ball as he crashed to the ground. The interception was the first in 233 attempts by Bortles, snapping the longest active streak in the nation.
It merely served as a speed bump on a night UCF showed the AAC is more than just No. 7 Louisville and a bunch of nobodies.
“I told them last night in all my years, 45 years of coaching ... after every game you feel one of two emotions,” O’Leary said. “You feel great joy or great sadness and I want to make sure you feel joy and that’s what they feel right now.”