As UCF approaches its inaugural season as the youngest member of a Power 5 conference, the athletics department is taking a look back to commemorate this special moment in history. The following feature is a part of UCF’s 12 for XII series — 12 stories that define UCF and the meteoric rise of the Knights in their journey to the Big 12 Conference.
With 1:08 remaining in UCF’s Nov. 16, 2013, road football game at Temple, I realized I had taken the elevator from the press box too soon.
By this point, I had written my story of UCF’s football team losing and its Bowl Championship Series (BCS) dream crashing. I went downstairs at Lincoln Financial Field to soak up as much of the atmosphere as I could from the final moments of the game.
With the Knights trailing 36-29, I was standing in the tunnel as Blake Bortles rolled away from one defender, then hesitated and took a hit as he released the pass towards J.J. Worton. The receiver went full stretch, one arm held out. Somehow, he came down with the ball.
A security guard in a yellow jacket standing at the end of the tunnel turned and sprinted past me screaming at the top of his lungs. I started furiously typing a new version of the story into my phone. Then I hopped up into the stands to watch the rest of the game play out.
The pass to Rannell Hall. The field goal. The win. (I saw it all.)
I jumped back down into the tunnel and eventually got the color (for my story) I was looking for.
My lede from that night was fitting considering where I had seen the drama unfold: “The man who had soared to keep UCF’s dream season alive could not hold back tears as he walked through the tunnel at Lincoln Financial Field.”
If I close my eyes, I can still feel the adrenaline of many of those deadlines — the shaky fingers over a keyboard after the Knights did something special to keep the dreams of a BCS bowl alive. Panicked typing in Happy Valley, Memphis, Louisville, Philadelphia, Orlando and Dallas.
How many ledes had I re-written? A few, for sure. And yet, even as those crazy endings unfolded — Will Stanback’s forced fumble in Memphis, Bortles’ floated pass to Jeff Godfrey in Louisville, Brandon Alexander’s tipped pass against Houston, Worton’s full-stretch snag in Philly — something felt right about it all.
This was supposed to happen.
I arrived in Orlando, Florida the year prior, leaving my hometown newspaper to cover a school I knew more as Central Florida than UCF. I didn’t make the change just to cover George O’Leary’s football team. As I tried to decipher the right next step in my career and did research on UCF, I learned about a school I thought could matter on a national landscape. UCF was set to move from Conference USA to the Big East, the student population was exploding, the campus expanding. There was a real story to tell here, I thought. One that went beyond sports. It was about college realignment — the old powers versus a new school trying to shove its way into the conversation.
I had no idea.
Over the next year the scope of that story would change. The Big East folded. The American Athletic Conference was born. The path to a power conference narrowed. And yet UCF still seemed on the verge of something. I felt it from the first time I sat in the press box at the Bounce House.
The first game I covered was a 40-20 win against East Carolina in 2012. I watched Bortles throw for 269 yards and a score and run for another 62 yards and a touchdown. The next week it was an overtime win over Southern Miss and Bortles threw for 272 yards and a couple more scores. You could tell the potential here was off the charts. As that season unfolded, the sense got stronger. Not just about Bortles, but about something brewing in this team. And as the pages turned to the 2013 season, it felt like the football team could serve as a microcosm about the story the school was trying to sell:
“Hey, look at us. We can be much more than you think. We already are.”
The inkling that the season might have something special in store started to turn to alarm bells in Happy Valley. No offense, of course, to Akron University or FIU (Florida International University), but those wins to start the season were expected. Rolling up to Penn State was a real marker for the team.
I felt like that game was my first real college football experience. The atmosphere was insane — 92,855 people all dressed in white. As the sun went down, the crowd seemed to get louder. What stuck with me was that UCF was clearly the better team, but Penn State pushed itself back into the game. UCF having to hold on to win by three sort of set the tone for the season — nothing was going to come easy, nothing was going to be clean.
The way that game went down — the key defensive stops needed, an important third-down conversion to keep the game-killing drive alive — was also vital for the team. UCF had been so close to a marquee win so many times under George O’Leary (former UCF head football coach). This win gave belief and showed they could gut it out. It took character.
I remember O’Leary didn’t love the way I phrased a question in the postgame press conference, but he knew it was one of those wins that could change things.
“Right now, with the stage of the program and where we’re at, we can build on a win like this,” he says.
That win set up such a huge week ahead of the South Carolina game. It would feature two players that ended up being in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft: Bortles and Jadeveon Clowney. It was also the first time in my career I was covering a team that was the talk of the sports landscape in the market.
The game was moved to ABC Network. Tailgating hours got extended. Steve Spurrier was coming, which always added another layer at the Orlando Sentinel. The hype was there.
The game didn’t go UCF’s way. The Knights led at halftime, but probably should’ve had a bigger advantage. They ended up falling short. In the moment, it felt like a missed opportunity. Really, I think it was an indicator that UCF was right there with one of the better teams in the country at the time.
What’s funny is it wasn’t the loss that week that nearly cost UCF the special season, it was the hangover from South Carolina. The Liberty Bowl was a decidedly different atmosphere than Happy Valley or a packed Bounce House (formally known as FBC Mortgage Stadium at UCF). But if people were paying attention, they saw the beginnings of something happening there with the Tigers. UCF wasn’t ready for it. Everyone could see it was a trap game, and yet UCF walked right into the trap.
When I look back on the season, that was the only game I felt like UCF got lucky.
The Knights were bad. Memphis was better. But sometimes fate intervenes. In this case, it was the hit from Stanback on the kickoff. I remember hearing the crowd gasp when it happened, and at first no one could tell that the ball came out and that UCF scored. I remember looking around and asking what was going on. “Did he fumble? Did he fumble?!”
And then I realized I had a new story to write. Two touchdowns in nine seconds. A 17-10 deficit flipped into a 24-17 win. Somewhere on a thumb drive in one of my desk drawers is a copy of the “Knights Lose” version of the Memphis game.
The season had plenty more drama left and plenty of other alternate stories that were never published.
The next week was Louisville. Man, what a four-week stretch of football. Of all the regular-season games, this one remains the freshest in my memory. It was such a great game. The crowd was incredible. The Friday night primetime slot made it feel special. By this point, the excitement about covering a potentially important season was taking hold. Everyone knew what a win on the road at a top 10 Louisville team would mean: a national ranking; a path to a BCS game. It was Teddy Bridgewater versus Bortles. But even then, I don’t think people believed UCF had a chance.
There are two plays that stick out to me so clearly. One is how the game ended. The other? The bobbled punt snap midway through the third quarter. As a reporter, you don’t really have rooting interests in a game, but that doesn’t mean you’re immune to the normal human emotions of the drama you’re watching unfold. I remember that feeling in the pit of my stomach as the return went the other way. The idea of covering a BCS bowl was fading. The crowd was going nuts. You could feel the wave of momentum wash over the stadium.
Here are the two texts I sent my wife during the game. The first was right after that fumbled punt.
“This could get ugly.”
The second was … a bit later in the game.
There were haymakers thrown back and forth. A 21-point third-quarter deficit erased. And then there was that last drive. Seventy-five yards. Two big throws to Josh Reese. And then that final Bortles pass – Hall’s fingertip away from a different result.
What a game.
But this is how the whole 2013 season went. Four of the next six games would be decided by five points or less. I’m still benefiting from the amount of deadline work I got in 2013.
Amidst all the heroic moments on offense, it’s easy to forget the defensive play that saved the season. Houston. Fourth and goal from the seven-yard line with 20 seconds left. A freshman quarterback dropping back. A pass in the hands of a receiver. Alexander doing just enough to deflect it and win the game.
The next week at Temple was Worton’s all-time catch, which landed him an ESPY nomination. It’s easy to forget, too, that UCF needed a big play in the fourth quarter to beat a bad USF team that year. A 51-yard touchdown pass from Bortles to Breshad Perriman won that game, 23-20.
And then there was my favorite non-football memory of the season: asking UCF players what “wintry mix” meant ahead of a game in an ice storm at SMU (Southern Methodist University). Sadly, that video has been lost somewhere in the Orlando Sentinel’s archives. That game was no sure thing, either. UCF had already clinched a BCS bowl on Thursday night, which didn’t help, I’m sure, but it took multiple defensive stands in the fourth quarter to get out of Dallas with a 17-13 win.
So here we are, nearly 1,800 words into this piece, and I’m finally getting around to the game that really, truly introduced UCF to the general college football population. It’s funny how much goes into it — the ups and downs, the near-misses, the “almosts” along the way — and in the end it’s just parts of the stories that are remembered.
I remember arriving in Glendale, Arizona, and participating in the early media availabilities and feeling like UCF was still underappreciated. It made me question myself. Maybe I was too close to this team. Maybe those one-score results were an indication that this team wasn’t as good as its record. In the press box on the night of the game, the Orlando Sentinel’s longtime columnist Mike Bianchi and I traded predictions. I couldn’t decide what was going to happen.
I definitely did not predict what would take place.
It’s funny watching that game now. I don’t really remember it feeling so close in the first half. I felt like UCF was in control.
One thing that stands out about the 2014 Fiesta Bowl was that it highlighted the job the late Charlie Taaffe did as offensive coordinator that season. His use of the run-pass option was so good. Clearly, he had found and exploited a weakness he saw on tape. And even as Bortles struggled early in the game, UCF was able to keep Baylor off balance enough to stay in it.
When Bortles came alive in the second half — he ended up throwing for 301 yards and accounting for four touchdowns — the Knights took control. The defense, too, earned some respect. It was a match-up between the high-flying, record-setting Baylor offense and O’Leary’s old-school approach. With Tyson Summers calling the plays, UCF held its own.
It was a deserved win. And it changed minds about what the ceiling looked like for UCF.
Seven wins by seven points or fewer. A marquee victory in a BCS game. Bortles going No. 3 overall in the NFL Draft a few months later. It was such a fun season to cover. A decade later, it’s incredible to see how much more the program went through and achieved before finally getting entry to the Big 12 Conference. I know a lot of people will point to Scott Frost’s undefeated season as UCF’s big moment in the spotlight, but I still think it was 2013 that started it all.
The yellowed newspapers from that season sit in my office still. It’s a bit weird that they look as old as they do, that it’s been a decade since UCF’s first magical ride. It’s probably time to find a spot on the wall for some of them.
Paul Tenorio served as the Orlando Sentinel’s beat writer for UCF from 2012-14. He currently is a senior writer for The Athletic who covers soccer and has previously written for the Washington Post, FourFourTwo, ESPN and MLSsoccer.com.