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DUBLIN, Ireland - For the first time in its 128-year gridiron history, the Nittany Lion football team will play an international game. Penn State is set to meet UCF in the season-opening Croke Park Classic on Saturday (8:30 a.m. on ESPN2) in Ireland.
Head coach James Franklin will debut as leader of the Nittany Lions when he leads the team onto the infamous Irish pitch inside Croke Park Stadium. The Blue and White enter the season with seven returning starters on both offense and defense. The Lions begin the season with 54 true or redshirt freshmen on the roster.
Penn State traveled to Dublin overnight on Tuesday. After practicing at University College Dublin for three days, the Nittany Lions are focused on the season-opener against a very talented UCF squad. On the heels of a 12-1 season and a win in the Fiesta Bowl, the Knights are under the direction of 18-year veteran head coach George O'Leary.
The long wait is over. The 2014 Penn State Football season is here. Welcome to an international version of the Gameday Preview for the season-opener against the UCF Knights.
What to Watch For - Penn State
1. The Nittany Lions have been more than 3,000 miles away from Happy Valley since Wednesday morning, so game week has been anything but normal from a travel perspective. But the on-field preparations and meetings have been business as usual for the Nittany Lions across the pond. Penn State held three practices in Ireland and usual gameplan meetings throughout the week. The schedule has been as close to a typical game week as possible. As Coach Franklin has said all week, this is a business trip for the team and its staff. The Lions have been exposed to some of the finest cuisine and sites in Ireland during the week, but the group has been focused on the task at hand since it arrived.
2. Reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg will lead the Nittany Lion offense for the second-straight season. Hackenberg, who was voted captain by his peers during training camp, is an improved player in all facets of the game after a strong offseason in the weight room and on the field. Franklin has noted several times during the offseason that the cast of players surrounding the quarterback is the key group to keep an eye on. Headlining the cast is a pair of senior running backs - Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak - and a corps of veteran tight ends led by Jesse James and Kyle Carter. Keep an eye on the youthful receiving corps made up of Geno Lewis, DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall.
3. The Penn State defense had a superb training camp season. A group filled with veterans, the Nittany Lions enter the season with eight defensive starters who are juniors or seniors. The man calling the shots on the defensive side of the ball is fifth-year senior Mike Hull. Hull is the team's top returning tackler (78 stops in 2013). In addition to Hull, defensive end C.J. Olaniyan and safeties Ryan Keiser and Adrian Amos will start as seniors. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop wants to see an attacking style with relentless pursuit of the ball every time his unit steps onto the field.
What to Watch For - UCF
1. The UCF defense features nine returning starters from last year's team that went 12-1. The Knights finished in the nation's top 20 in scoring defense in 2013, allowing just 21.3 points per game. Bednarik Award candidate Terrance Plummer returns as the team's top tackler. He finished with 110 tackles in 2013. The UCF secondary features two Jim Thorpe Award candidates in senior Clayton Geathers and sophomore cornerback Jacoby Glenn. Geathers recorded 100 stops, two interceptions and 10 pass breakups last season. Glenn had two interceptions and 15 pass breakups.
2. The Penn State coaching staff believes UCF has among the top receiving units that the Nittany Lions will face all season. Senior Rannell Hall made 57 receptions for 886 yards and had five touchdowns last year. Junior Breshad Perriman averaged nearly 21 yards per reception in 2013. Perriman finished with 811 yards and 39 catches. J.J. Worton is the third key contributor in the receiving corps. Worton tallied 47 receptions and seven touchdowns last season. Former UCF quarterback and NFL first-round selection Black Bortles is now playing on Sundays. Redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo will make his first career start, but he has a talented cast of receivers on the field to distribute the ball to.
3. The Knights also enter the season with a solid group of specialists on the depth chart. Placekicker Shawn Moffitt is a Lou Groza Award candidate after going 21-for-23 on field goal attempts in 2013. Punter Caleb Houston averaged 42.2 yards per punt last season, as well. Hall (KR) and Worton (PR) are the team's return threats. Hall is among UCF's leaders in nearly every kickoff return category. Worton has 55 punt returns for 573 yards in his career.
The Final Word:
Historic Croke Park will play host to Saturday's clash between Penn State and UCF. Finished in 1913, Croke Park Stadium has a 69,000-seat capacity for the football game. Home of the Gaelic Games, the stadium is a large structure that towers over most of the buildings in Dublin, but does so with an intimate feel inside. The sports and cultural heritage of the stadium can be felt from the moment an individual walks inside. The pitch is hallowed ground not touched by anyone but competitors or the grounds crew. The pitch itself is large enough to fit more than two football fields across it, giving Saturday's game a unique look. The football lines will be centered in the pitch, which provides significant space between the sidelines and the stadium structure. Playing inside Croke Park means a lot to the Nittany Lions.
"There is no doubt that it is a national treasure for them," Franklin said. "Sports are very, very important in this country. I think the whole thing has been surreal in a lot of ways."
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2014 Gameday Preview - Lions Open Season In Dublin
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