Saturday at 7 p.m. and the start of Conference USA play can’t get here soon enough for a frustrated UCF team that has had to stew over two confounding losses for what will be more than two weeks.
In some respects, last Saturday’s open date came at a good time for a UCF team battered and bruised physically and spiritually. But the bye week also came after frustrating losses to FIU and BYU, meaning the wait to get the season back on track has been interminable for several of the UCF players.
With the Knights sitting at 2-2, emotions of late have spanned the entire spectrum – anger, frustration, sadness and finally acceptance that there is still plenty to play for this season. UCF practiced three days last week, helping the team shift the focus from the BYU defeat to the highly anticipated showdown against C-USA rival Marshall (2-3).
“We had been grinding for four weeks, so it was good to take a week off. But we’re so ready to get back on the field now against Marshall,” UCF senior tight end Adam Nissley said. “We can still get to what we want to be. We feel like in our conference we determine our own fate by going out and winning games. That sets us up at the end of the season to be champions, so we can’t wait to get back at it.”
UCF certainly has some experience of being in this situation. In 2009, the Knights were 2-2 following an early-season loss at East Carolina, but they rallied to an 8-5 finish and a spot in the St. Pete Bowl. And last season, UCF shook off a 2-2 start to author the finest season in school history. UCF won five in a row and nine of the last 10 to climb to C-USA champions and winners of the Liberty Bowl.
“After that (BYU) loss we had a team meeting and coach told us that we were in the same position last year and 2-2 going into conference play. We just have to buckle down now and get ready,” senior wide receiver A.J. Guyton said. “Our goal now is to win Conference USA and it starts on Saturday against Marshall.”
As defending C-USA champs, UCF is the hunted team in a conference full of squads looking to dethrone the Knights from the top perch. Foremost amongst those teams is Marshall, arguably UCF’s biggest and nastiest rival in C-USA’s East Division. The two schools have met each of the past nine seasons – with UCF winning the past six games. The Knights smashed Marshall 35-14 last season in a nationally televised game, and UCF knows what to expect with the Herd rolling into Orlando following a 17-13 defeat of Louisville.
“We don’t really have a rival game, but I guess if we had to pick one because of the length of the (series) that UCF has played Marshall from the MAC, this is the one we’ve played the most,” UCF coach George O’Leary said. “We’re anxious to tee it up with them. We’ll find out what (Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato) is about and they’ll find out what (UCF quarterback Jeff Godfrey) is about.”
O’Leary gave his team five consecutive days off last week following the 24-17 loss at BYU and then had the Knights practice three times. Rather than harping so much on the negatives of losing two games, O’Leary stressed to his squad that it was still doing plenty of good things, but had to eliminate turnovers and special teams gaffes. Despite its 2-2 record, UCF still ranks first in the nation in pass defense, second in total defense, fifth in scoring defense and 15th in rush defense. Offensively, the Knights are averaging 420.2 yards a game.
O’Leary also stressed to his coaching staff to lighten some of the intricacies of the game plan because the team has so many young players filling critical positions.
“There are always areas where you can improve on, but we’re doing a lot of things well, too,” O’Leary said. “We don’t spend a lot of time harping about mistakes because there’s a lot of good. We can’t take those three or four plays out of those (FIU and BYU) games and say that’s the whole season. We have to improve in those areas if we’re going to be successful. In these last couple of days of practice we’ve gotten better.”
Senior tailback Ronnie Weaver, who highlighted last season’s defeat of Marshall with 150 rushing yards on 30 carries, said he’s been particularly vocal with teammates during the week off about there still being plenty to play for this season. He knows that another conference title will dictate which bowl the Knights play in at the end of the season.
“The mood has been up because we’re trying to stick together and keep our camaraderie. We have a working mindset to get back on track. We understand from our background the last couple of seasons that we started off 2-2 and we’ve expressed to the younger guys through team meetings and group meetings that we still have a lot of football to play,” Weaver said. “These conference games are very important to us having a successful season. Our goal from the beginning has been to win the conference championship, and it’s still very much attainable.”