DUBLIN — UCF might have found its replacement for quarterback Blake Bortles. Unfortunately, the Knights didn't find him until the second half Saturday in a 26-24 loss to Penn State.
Second-stringer Justin Holman accounted for all three UCF touchdowns, one in the air and two on the ground. His 6-yard run with 1:13 left put the Knights ahead for the first time, 24-23, in front of a raucous 55,000-strong crowd in Croke Park.
Those 73 remaining seconds were just enough time for Penn State sophomore sensation quarterback Christian Hackenberg to drive the Nittany Lions 55 yards in eight plays for a winning 36-yard field goal by Sam Ficken.
UCF coach George O'Leary spoke bluntly — and at times defensively — when questioned about why he started redshirt freshman quarterback Pete DiNovo, a standout at East Lake High, instead of the more athletic Holman, only to bench DiNovo halfway through his first start after he went 3 for 8 passing for 18 yards. Holman was 9-of-14 for 204 yards.
Asked whether Holman had shown signs of Saturday's performance in practices, O'Leary snapped, "If he did, I would have been playing him."
In the preseason, O'Leary said, "(Holman) was high, inefficient in his throws. (Saturday) 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 Ficken's fourth field goal, after which the Penn State bench swarmed the field.
Coach James Franklin, who won in his Penn State debut, said the Lions weren't rattled by UCF's go-ahead TD. "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.
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.
Holman came on for the second drive of the second half. He hit receiver Breshad Perriman with a 50-yard pass that put UCF at Penn State's 1-yard line. Holman then scored his first touchdown on a quarterback sneak to pull UCF within 13-10 with 2:39 left in the third quarter.
O'Leary was bewildered by DiNovo's 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."
The UCF receivers were consistently open in both halves but DiNovo too often misfired or hesitated, O'Leary said. "Justin, give him credit," he said of Holman. "He went out there and made the throws. He was the spark plug in the second half offensively."