Even while playing in a torrential rain Saturday night at Bright House Networks Stadium, UCF’s reign over Conference USA rival Marshall continued in full force.
UCF rained down more pain on Marshall, beating the Thundering Herd 16-6, a seventh consecutive victory against the Herd in soggy, sloppy playing conditions before 24,750 water-logged fans.
“This is big for us. We as a senior group talked about not wanting to be the ones that lost to Marshall,” said middle linebacker Josh Linam, who had six tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a recovery for UCF’s defense. “We won all four years that we were here (against Marshall), so that’s pretty significant in our eyes.”
UCF (3-2) took out some frustration on Marshall after losing consecutive games against FIU and BYU. Also, the Knights were playing at Bright House Networks Stadium for the first time since Sept. 10 when they throttled Boston College 30-3. UCF is 3-0 at home this season.
“This was about us getting back to the old UCF and the way we played last year – putting up points, playing good defense and stopping the run,” said junior safety Kemal Ishmael. “This was us getting back our identity as a football team. This adds a little bit of that swagger back.”
The game was played in a steady downpour that started Friday night, continued all day Saturday and seemed to intensify throughout Saturday night’s game. According to weather records, the 7-plus inches of rain that fell on Saturday made it the wettest October day in Orlando since 1950. One UCF fan playfully donned a black and gold swimming hat and goggles while watching the game.
“I’ve been in football a long time and I’ve never been involved in a whole game where it rained like that,” said UCF coach George O’Leary, who is in his 43rd year as a football coach and captured his 100th-career head coaching victory. “I thought defensively we played well, but offensively we played in spurts and didn’t sustain blocks. But it was a good conference win for us.”
The wet weather had little-to-no effect on a UCF team that played with a determination to right a season that had briefly derailed off the tracks over the past two weeks. Junior tailback Brynn Harvey got his first start in 22 months and ran 30 times for 180 yards, the sixth 100-yard rushing night of his college career. And UCF’s smothering defense did the rest, stuffing Marshall’s running game and promising freshman quarterback Rakeem Cato all night long.
“It felt really good. I just stepped behind my line and did what I was supposed to do,” said Harvey, who darted off left tackle for 50 yards on the first play of the game. “It felt real good having a first carry like that. I give it all to my line because they held their blocks and I just ran.”
The Herd (2-4) came into the game riding high following an early-season defeat of Southern Miss and an upset of Louisville last week. But Marshall never had a chance against a UCF team intent on sending a message to the rest of the teams in Conference USA. The Knights are hoping to defend their C-USA title and win the league for a third time in five seasons.
Said Harvey: “The goal is to win the conference championship again. If we go out there and take them one game at a time that goal should be there for us at the end of the season.”
Quarterback Jeff Godfrey, who was facing a close friend and fellow Miami Central alumnus in Marshall’s Cato, complemented the rushing game by completing 13 of 22 passes for 147 yards. He threw his first touchdown pass of the season, but also had a late interception off a tipped pass.
UCF lost two fumbles, threw an interception and botched a field goal attempt in the monsoon-like conditions. Marshall lost one fumble, but had just one first down until the midpoint of the third quarter.
Marshall got within 16-6 late in the third quarter when Rashad Jackson returned a Harvey fumbled 12 yards for a touchdown. It’s the third time this season that UCF has had a touchdown scored against it while the offense or the special teams units were on the field.
Said O’Leary: “(Our defense) started getting annoyed at our offense when they fumbled and (Marshall) took it in for a score. But it’s a team game. It’s a `we’ game and not a `me’ game. The big thing is the win. The defense has played well positionally and they’re getting their hands on some more balls.”
UCF’s defense entered the game ranked first in the country in pass defense, second in total defense and fifth in scoring defense. And those numbers will look even gaudier come Monday after another dominant effort.
UCF’s defense has now given up just three touchdowns all season – and two of those came after fumbled punt returns inside the 10-yard line. Three foes – Charleston Southern, Boston College and Marshall – have mustered just nine points this season at Bright House Networks Stadium.
“We take a lot of pride in that because that’s the only that that we can control out there as defensive players,” said redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Victor Gray, referring to the fact that UCF has given up just one extended scoring drive all season. “We can’t control the fumbles or the dropped passes, but we can control where they put the ball. We take pride in stopping the run, stopping the pass and playing complete defense.”
UCF next plays in Dallas on Saturday against SMU in a rematch of last December’s C-USA title game. The Knights beat the Mustangs 17-7 last year to earn a berth to the Liberty Bowl where they defeated the University of Georgia.
UCF seemed to break the will of the Thundering Herd early in the game and dominated the first half. The Knights led 16-0 at the break after rolling up 246 yards, including 177 coming on the ground. Conversely, Marshall had just one first down and mustered only 47 yards in the first 30 minutes.
UCF’s offense seemed to pay little attention at all to the driving rainstorm, putting together two scoring drives in the first quarter to build a 14-0 lead.
Harvey, making his first start in 22 months, opened the game with a dazzling 50-yard run, a sprint that tied his career long. And six plays later the Knights were in the end zone when Godfrey hit A.J. Guyton for a 5-yard score. It was UCF’s first touchdown pass of the season.
“I thought Brynn hit the holes when he had to hit them, but I thought the other two backs (Ronnie Weaver and Latavius Murray) were dancing too much and you can’t do that on a wet field,” O’Leary said.
After another deep drive ended with a fumble, UCF went back on the attack behind the hard running from Harvey. Blasts of 23 and 11 yards from Harvey got the Knights in the red zone, and following a 22-yard reverse by Khymest Williams, Murray scored from four yards out. Freshman kicker Shawn Moffitt’s second point-after put the Knights up 14-0.
“It was very important for us to send a message. We went out there and did a good job,” Godfrey said. “We got a win in conference play and that’s big.”