There is no question UCF would prefer to be 4-0 as conference play begins. But there are no do-overs in college football. Instead, the Knights can look back to how they reacted after similar starts and realize how they handled their past can determine their future.
For the last three seasons UCF stood 2-2 after four games, losing that fourth game. Each time, UCF responded by winning the fifth game by 35, 18 and 14 points.
George O’Leary said how his team responded after the loss at Kansas State last year was the reason UCF went on to a record-setting year. But the 2010 squad was full of seniors who led the mental charge to focus on the conference schedule and set UCF on a path to a title. This year’s team is not as deep when it comes to senior leadership. Who will step up and lead is something to watch.
“We need to see some of these guys lead by example,” said George O’Leary. “It’s time to start playing to the level we can play and eliminate the mistakes that have cost two games.”
The last two years have had similar fourth game finishes. In 2010, UCF saw Kansas State get a late score in Manhattan and grab a 17-13 win. BYU scored with a few minutes to grab a 24-17 win in Provo.
After the Kansas State loss in 2010, UCF returned to the practice field determined to play a full 60 minutes every time out and not make mistakes that could cost a game. With the exception of the setback against Southern Miss, UCF executed the conference game plan to near perfection.
So here we sit in 2011 and the Knights need to respond after losing back-to-back games in which miscues, not talent, were the difference in winning and losing.
“We cannot keep shooting ourselves in the foot,” said O’Leary. “We have lost two games on a couple of plays but now we have to correct these mistakes and start executing like we know we can.”
And that begins with the conference opener against Marshall this Saturday at Bright House Networks Stadium.
On offense, O’Leary wants to see Jeff Godfrey play with confidence and know when to run and when to stay in the pocket and pass. But his line also must elevate its game. UCF has allowed 11 sacks in four games. The line allowed 20 all of last season.
The Knights’ run game needs a solid start and game against the Thundering Herd. UCF has rushed for 200 yards on 79 carries the last two games. That figure includes the sack yards but UCF backs have not had the success they saw earlier in the season or late in 2010.
George O’Leary wants more big plays. A.J. Guyton had two receptions over 50 yards at BYU. But O’Leary says more is needed.
“We need to be able to get big plays and take them to the house,” said O’Leary. “And we need more people making big plays.”
On defense, UCF has just six sacks and needs more pressure and despite allowing just 27 percent conversions on third down, the Knights cannot keep up third and long. Against both FIU and BYU, third and longs were converted at key moments in the fourth that allowed precious time off the clock and began to wear down the defense.
Everyone knows the special teams story and O’Leary says the mistakes will be corrected. It has been a point of emphasis during the bye week. But O’Leary points out his team must improve in more than just the punt return game.
“We need to get better kickoff returns and shore up kickoff coverage,” said O’Leary. “Compared to last year, we are down about 100 yards per game in returns and that hurts you when it comes to field position.”
O’Leary said his team’s preparation has been good and they are focused on Marshall as defense of their conference title begins.
Despite the 2-2 start, UCF knows it has become a game opponents circle on their schedule. Everyone brings their “A” game when UCF is the opponent. As the Knights look to keep the crown in Orlando, we’ll see if they bring their “A+” game this Saturday.