Were they ever?
Calabrese looked like the calm, confident quarterback that UCF has been hoping for for years in Saturday’s season-opener at Bright House Networks Stadium. And the results were dynamic as Calabrese did mostly as he pleased and led UCF to an easy, breezy defeat of South Dakota.
Calabrese played with a swagger as he completed his first nine passes of the game and threw for 176 yards and a touchdown in the Knights’ 38-7 victory before a crowd of 34,373 fans.
“I knew I was in a groove,” Calabrese said with a relieved smile afterward. “I dreamed about this and knew that I was going to play well.”
UCF was both dominant and efficient offensively, totaling 472 yards and 27 first downs. The Knights drove into South Dakota territory on all of their eight drives and didn’t punt for the first time until late in the third period. The 38 points were UCF’s most in a season opener since 1998 when it beat Louisiana Tech 64-30.
It was almost a year to the date when Calabrese opened last season as the starting quarterback, but was lifted after a shaky performance. There was never a threat of that happening on Saturday night what with the way he was carving up South Dakota’s defense with his poise in the pocket.
Calabrese definitively strengthened his hold on the starting quarterback job by leading scoring drives of 75, 84, 45 and 80 yards in the first half, allowing UCF to jump to a 24-7 lead. Calabrese battled freshman phenom Jeff Godfrey in the spring and fall for the starting job, but left Saturday’s game as UCF’s unquestioned leader of the offense.
“I felt much more confident and poised. I was relaxed and I knew where people were going to be,” Calabrese said. “I was throwing the ball before receivers made their breaks and I trust everyone on our offense.”
And the junior quarterback had plenty of help as sophomore tailback Jonathan Davis ran for a career-best 107 yards and a touchdown and wide out A.J. Guyton also had a career night with 127 receiving yards and an 11-yard scoring pass.
“We executed very well for the first game,” UCF coach George O’Leary said. “It was an overall good win and we got a chance to play some (reserves). Obviously we have some improvement to make. There are three things that you have to play with – your mind, your pads and your feet. And we had the least amount of mistakes in a first game since I’ve been here.”
Godfrey, the record-setting true freshman from Miami, played well in his three series in relief. He had an 11-yard completion to Guyton on his first collegiate pass. And in the fourth quarter, he found tight end Adam Nissley for a 21-yard gainer and hit Quincy McDuffie for a six-yard score for his first-ever college touchdown pass.
Said O’Leary: “He’s a talented kid. He made some mistakes, but he has the quickness to take a bad play and make something good out of it. He has a wonderful future in college football.”
South Dakota got within 14-7 early in the second quarter when tailback Chris Ganious got outside for a one-yard scoring run. UCF made the adjustments in the second half to keep contain on the perimeter and limited the Coyotes (0-1) to just 79 yards of offense in the second half.
“We were definitely more prepared for this game and we had such a great preseason that our chemistry is great right now,” said All-American candidate Bruce Miller, who had three tackles. “That allowed us to play more free out there and get the job done.”
Calabrese played mistake-free football in the first half, hitting on all nine of his passes – none of them bigger than his 11-yard throw to Guyton for a score on third-and-four. Calabrese also converted a key third-and-seven play with another 18-yard pass on a deep in to Guyton on the second drive of the game.
“I felt it from warm-ups that Rob was going to play well from the look he had in his eyes,” Guyton said. “He told us all just to go out there and have fun instead of being all jumpy. That’s the biggest difference in him, not being jumpy. I have no doubt that he can make all of the throws, but the difference now is that he’s more poised.”
And Calabrese’s confidence was never higher than early in the third period when Calabrese broke the pocket on a scrambled and flattened South Dakota cornerback Aaron Swift. Calabrese jumped to his feet and pumped his fist as he was congratulated by his teammates.
All in all, Calabrese said the night couldn’t have gone much better for him. He professed to being calm in the hotel in the hours leading up to the game, studying his playbook and even watching a few other games.
“I was high on confidence and I just kept telling myself to forget about the last play and move on,” he said. “I think we had four drives of at least nine plays and that’s what you want – moving the chains and keeping the defense off the field. I knew I had completed every pass (in the first half), but I was just moving to the next play.”
John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.