ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The idea started with a phone call.
With the aftermath Penn State’s sex abuse scandal erasing his team postseason prospects until at least 2016, then-Nittany Lions’ head coach Bill O’Brien picked up the phone and called an old friend to pitch a game with UCF in Ireland.
“Billy had called…because what he was trying to do because of the probation Penn State was on was get the kids a trip,” UCF coach George O’Leary recalled this week. “I said `Fine, I’d be willing to play that.’ And we worked it out.”
A year’s worth of planning and a few personnel changes later, the Nittany Lions and Knights are set to open the 2014 season in the first game outside the United States for both programs. It will mark the eighth regular-season game between NCAA schools in Ireland. Penn State and UCF will meet in Croke Park on Saturday and game has been dubbed the “Croke Park Classic.”
There are only sparse connections to Ireland on sides.
O’Leary’s grandfather was born in Cork, Ireland, just three hours away from Dublin. That is also the hometown of Knights’ kicker Sean Galvin.
For Penn State, new coach James Franklin’s mother is originally from England, and his parents were married in Ireland. He has family he hasn’t seen in 15 years and they’ll be at the game where they will meet his wife for the first time.
The game brings lots of mystery for Irish locals, who don’t know much about American football. Still, O’Leary expects there to be a lot of interest in what’s going at a Gaelic football-built stadium that will swallow up the American 100-yard field.
“I think the Irish will be at the game,” he said. “I would assume they’d root for Galvin. And probably the name O’Leary doesn’t hurt.”
Though his team took in some sites and Irish culture this week, Franklin said it wouldn’t distract them too much from football.
“We’re going to play a game and so is Central Florida,” Franklin said. “They’re having to deal with all the same issues of flying to another country, time zone, all those things. This is not going to be an once-in-a-lifetime experience. For us, this is a business trip to go and play in a football game.”
Here are some things to watch for during Penn State and UCF’s season opener in Dublin:
NEW STAFF AT PENN STATE: O’Brien’s departure and the arrival of Franklin in the offseason from Vanderbilt has put the Knights at somewhat of a disadvantage preparing for the Nittany Lions this time around after last season’s 34-31 win. And Franklin has already created a different culture in Happy Valley. Fifth-year linebacker Mike Hull, who has had three different coaches in his Penn State career, said it was noticeable early. “Coach O’Brien’s was run like an NFL camp, not as much hitting, not as much physicality,” he said. “I think Coach Franklin is right in the middle.”
YOUNG QUARTERBACKS: Penn State got a lot out of Christian Hackenberg as a true freshman last season. He completed 59 percent of his passes, with 20 touchdowns on the way to being named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. The Knights are also going young following the departure of Blake Bortles to the NFL. They will start redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo, who won a preseason battle with sophomore Justin Holman.
KNIGHTS DEFENSE: UCF has one of the most-experienced defenses in the American Athletic Conference, returning nine starters. The Knights have 24 of 30 defense players back that saw action in at least one game in 2013.
NOT YOUR FATHER’S STADIUM: Both teams will have to adjust to a large playing surface that could cause some depth-perception issues. A Gaelic pitch is about 20 yards wider and deeper than a U.S.-sized field. The stadium seats 82,000, but the configuration for Saturday allows for 55,000 seats.
DAN ROONEY TROPHY/SPECIAL HELMET: The winner of Saturday’s game will receive the Dan Rooney Trophy, named after the chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland from 2009 to 2012. It is a replica football, made of bog yew and Pittsburgh steel, with the yew coming from the remains of forests that grew 4,200 years ago in the Irish midlands. UCF will also don a special helmet for the game, featuring a pair of shamrocks above its logo.
AP staff writer Shawn Pogatchnik contributed to this report.
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