Ticking off UCF’s games this season one by one, head coach George O’Leary said he could point to a couple of plays in each one that meant the difference between winning and losing. And because most of those plays went against UCF, they are the reason the Knights have lost an incredible six games by seven or fewer points.
There was the fumble just before halftime and the botched punt return against FIU. There was the kickoff return allowed and another muffed punt return against BYU. Then, came the last-second field goal allowed in the two-loss loss at UAB. UCF couldn’t convert from the 5-yard line against Tulsa and didn’t hit on a two-point pass at Southern Miss, both miscues resulting in two more losses. And finally, UCF twice tied the score in the second half last Saturday, but couldn’t get a key stop in the final three minutes of the game and lost yet again to East Carolina.
Only the SMU loss where UCF was overwhelmed on both sides of the ball and fell 38-17 was the lone game that the Knights didn’t push for a win in the fourth quarter. What was left was six losses by a combined 31 points, leaving the Knights to wonder what could have been this season had they been able to make a few more plays and get a few more defensive stops.
“I think it’s a very frustrating season,” O’Leary said. “I think the kids have played very hard, but I think when you build a program on not making mistakes, no penalties, not beating yourself, we really — I’m talking about coaching staff and players and I’m not pointing at the players — but we really haven’t gotten that accomplished.
“Every game has been like the old saying, `Same movie, different movie theater,” O’Leary continued. “That’s very frustrating as a coach because these things are being covered, but we’re just very immature at some areas. We’ve just hurt ourselves in a lot of areas.”
The pain of a frustrating season will end Friday when UCF (4-7 overall and 2-5 in Conference USA play) hosts UTEP (5-6 and 2-5) at 7 p.m. at Bright House Networks Stadium. The Knights were eliminated from having any shot of winning the C-USA title two weeks ago and were knocked out of contention for a bowl game with last Saturday’s loss. UTEP is playing for a bowl game, while the Knights are left simply hoping to end the season with a victory.
“After our meeting on Sunday, coach told us that the team was going to try and win this game and send the seniors out on a positive note. That would be nice,” senior wide receiver A.J. Guyton said. “(Fellow senior) Darius Nall asked me how I was feeling and I don’t even know how to feel. This is our last week out here on the practice field. We just have to make the most of it now and try to go out with a positive note.”
UCF’s 15 seniors will head into the finale with a 27-23 record with two bowl appearances over the past four seasons. Because many of the players redshirted in 2007, they were technically a part of C-USA championships in 2007 and 2010. They helped the Knights author the finest season in school history last year, one in which they won 11 games, captured a C-USA crown and beat Georgia in the Liberty Bowl.
“I feel like our Knights family here has left a legacy and a good impression in these first five years of Bright House Networks Stadium,” said senior tailback Ronnie Weaver, one of the team captains along with linebacker Josh Linam. “We’ve set an example for the young guys to carry into the future. This program can still grow in leaps and bounds. It’s up to the guys to take heed to the coaching and get better from this season.”
Some of UCF’s seniors, such as Adam Nissley, Nick Pieschel, Weaver and Guyton, have been on hand for just about every home game at Bright House Networks Stadium over the past five years. They all said that running onto the field for the final time on Friday will be emotional.
“The emotions will be mixed. I’ll be excited to play, but it will be bittersweet because of the season that we’ve had,” Linam said. “I’ve had a lot of good memories in there. I’m just hoping that (the last game) will be good overall.”
Added Guyton: “It’ll be crazy knowing that it’s my last time to play on that field, especially since I was one of the first ones to play on that field back in 2007 against Texas in that first home game. I’ll try to hold my emotions in and just go out and play.”
Weaver, who rose from being a walk-on to one of the Knights’ two team captains, said it will take him some time to get over how sour this season has turned. UCF entered the year with hopes of being a BCS-buster, and those beliefs were buoyed early on by a 30-3 whipping of Boston College. But too many missed opportunities resulted in close losses that sabotaged UCF’s season.
“I think back on this past season and try to figure out what we could have done better, but hindsight is 20/20. You can always correct things when you see them on film, but games come down to execution,” Weaver said. “We didn’t execute when we needed to. A play here and a play there and this season could have been drastically different for us.”