STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Moments before his players boarded the bus for Beaver Stadium on Saturday morning, UB coach Lance Leipold spared his team some lame Vinci-over-Serena speech about being the underdog. Instead, he drove home his persistent message about Penn State.
The white helmets with the navy stripe down the middle? They belonged to a storied program, he told them. The University at Buffalo wasn’t playing against Penn State’s history or the biggest crowd they’ll see all season. UB was playing against players wearing the uniform. And they were vulnerable.
“We played the guys inside the helmet,” Leipold said after Buffalo threw a brief scare in a 27-14 loss before about 65,000 fans. “They’ve done a lot in this program to give themselves a tradition. We’re working on building a tradition. At the same time, it’s about who’s in the helmets at this particular time.”
Cold truth: at this particular time, Penn State is just another team.
Long gone are the days in which Penn State started the season with the idea it would contend for a national championship. Four years after the program was rocked by the sex scandal that landed Jerry Sandusky in prison and tarnished Joe Paterno’s legendary coaching career, Penn State is still pulling its program from the ruins.
These are not your father’s Nittany Lions.
This isn’t to take anything away from UB, which played a very good game considering its size and talent disadvantage. In fact, any questions about Buffalo’s defense going into the season were answered Saturday. The Bulls should be feeling good about themselves going into conference play in a few weeks.
Still, Penn State was a disorganized, cluttered mess Saturday under second-year coach James Franklin. The Nittany Lions’ offense struggled for three quarters. They were forced to take a timeout after a change in possession and a commercial break. They had 10 men on the field while lining up to punt, leading to a delay-of-game penalty.
The Nittany Lions would be fortunate to finish .500 in the Big Ten if they continue playing the way they did in the first two games. Panic began washing over Happy Valley last weekend when Temple beat Penn State for the first time since 1941 in the season opener. The win over UB was hardly soothing.
Penn State doesn’t lose to Temple. But it did. The Nittany Lions certainly shouldn’t have had trouble with an inferior Buffalo team, either. But it did. The Bulls didn’t get the message they were paid $950,000 to be a non-conference patsy. They gave themselves a chance before losing their legs in the fourth quarter.
Otherwise, who knows?
Franklin might have been fired before breakfast if the Bulls managed to hold it together. Beaver Stadium fell so silent that you could practically hear fans jiggling the change in their pockets after Joe Licata found Ron Willoughby with a 14-yard touchdown pass to bring UB within 10-7 with 5:33 remaining in the third quarter.
“That was something we wanted to do,” UB linebacker Okezie Alozie said. “We talked about kind of trying to shut them up and using it to our advantage, just hanging in there until they got out of their character and hoping they would mess up. That was the goal.”
The Bulls’ defense showed up Saturday. Penn State needed a big punt return and an interception by a defensive lineman to generate its points in the first half. Penn State scored 17 straight points over three consecutive drives that started late in the third quarter, but it was hardly the blowout many expected.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg, hailed as a first-round NFL pick if he leaves Penn State after the season, played more like an average quarterback in the MAC than a five-star recruit. He wasn’t even the best quarterback on the field Saturday. Licata struggled against a heavy pass rush, but he was more productive.
Licata completed 24 of 35 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns while having future NFL defensive linemen Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson in his face for much of the afternoon. His lone interception came when a pass was batted at the line of scrimmage and gobbled up by Carl Nassib.
Hackenberg completed 14 of 27 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown. He’s a pro-style quarterback with a big frame and big arm, but he continued to look uncomfortable in Penn State’s offense. It marked the ninth time in 15 games that he failed to throw for 200 yards.
Let me remind you he was playing against Buffalo, not Michigan.
With only three returning starters, the UB ‘D’ was a potential problem going into this season. The offense was expected to be the driving force, but the defense was the better unit Saturday. UB can take comfort knowing its defense can compete against any team in the Mid-American Conference.
The Bulls were flagged seven times for false starts, including several that took them out of rhythm and stalled drives. They were called for three chop blocks and one tripping penalty. For every step forward, they took two steps in the opposite direction against a Penn State team that was there for the taking.
Leipold took that home with him after the game, assuming the team bus didn’t have a false start or stall on the way back to Amherst. He didn’t take his team on a field trip to Happy Valley. He walked into Beaver Stadium planning to win. The effort was there, but he left with his first loss since 2012.
“I don’t like losing,” Leipold said. “We didn’t come here to lose. But are there things that I’m pleased with? Yes. But it will eat me up until the end of time. If we cut out two-thirds of the penalties, what might have happened?”