Now, move ahead to Saturday when UCF’s offense so easily moved the ball and gashed UAB that punter Blake Clingan might as well have had the day off. Whether it was through the air or on the ground, UCF did as it pleased with the ball – clearly a 180-degree turnaround from a year ago.
And when the Knights hung on down the stretch with one defensive stop after another in a 34-27 defeat of UAB, many of UCF’s players marveled at the incredible jump from 4-8 to 8-4 over the past 364 days.
UCF rolled up 435 yards of offense, scored on six of its first nine possessions and wasn’t forced to punt until just 8:33 remained in the game. They had to weather a furious fourth-quarter rally by UAB quarterback Joe Webb (459 total yards, four TDs), but UCF was not about to let a shaky finish overshadow an otherwise stellar afternoon.
“Last year there was this feeling that we didn’t have a lot to play for, but this game was about wanting to achieve all of the goals that we had within reach,” said UCF defensive end Bruce Miller, who had two sacks to give him a team-high 12 for the season. “We have so much to play for now because the character of this team is unbelievable.”
UCF (8-4 overall and 6-2 in Conference USA play) qualified for the sixth-winningest season in its 30-year history, trailing only the 10 wins in 2007 and 1990 and the nine wins in 1998, 1993 and 1987. And the postseason will afford the Knights a chance to better that mark.
Also, by virtue of Saturday’s win and East Carolina’s defeat of Southern Miss, the Knights finished second in the Eastern Division. That’s quite an accomplishment for a team that was once 2-2, but rallied to win its final six conference games.
“Give the kids all of the credit,” UCF coach George O’Leary said. “The kids took all of the challenges and played with great effort. This team hasn’t caused me any problems off the field all season. That’s a credit to our senior class because they are the leaders. They are the ones who give the marching orders.”
The Knights now must wait to find out their fate for the postseason. UCF has qualified for a bowl for the third time in the past five seasons and could very well be headed to the St. Petersburg Bowl to face a Big East foe such as Rutgers or UConn.
“Coach asked us in the locker room after the game which bowl we wanted to go to and everybody was chanting, ‘St. Pete! St. Pete!” said Derrick Hallman, who had the final pass break-up with 17 seconds to play to seal the victory. “I guess St. Pete it is. That’s fine with me. Any bowl is a heck of an accomplishment.”
Regardless of where they head or who they play, UCF will be going with a full steam of momentum. UCF salvaged its season by winning its final six games in Conference USA play. And since a shaky 2-2 start to the season, UCF lost to only Miami and Texas, while delivering several record-setting performances along the way.
UCF sophomore tailback Brynn Harvey ran for 130 yards and a 25-yard touchdown, allowing him to top 1,000 yards for the season. Hodges, the senior transfer from Wake Forest who rescued the UCF offense with his steady play, passed for 230 yards and two TDs.
Said Hodges: “Going from 4-8 last year to 8-4 this year, that’s a pretty good turnaround.”
Clearly, the Knights have figured out the source of their slow starts to games. They trailed in nine of the first 10 games at the half, but jumped up 14-0 last week against Tulane and surged ahead 24-14 by the break on Saturday.
The 24 points in the first half were promising for UCF considering that the Knights are unbeaten in the seven games this season when they have scored at least 20 points. In fact, in the past 33 games, UCF is 17-1 when scoring at least 20 points.
The only negative in the first half was how Webb hurt UCF’s vaunted run defense. The Knights came into the game ranked third in the country against the run, trailing only Texas and Alabama. And the Knights were coming off last week’s domination of Tulane, a performance in which UCF held the Green Wave to just 50 total yards.
But Webb, a Birmingham native who was honored before the game as a part of UAB’s senior class, single-handedly kept the Blazers within striking distance early on. He had a 23-yard TD strike to Patrick Hearn in the first quarter and he ripped off a spectacular 53-yard scramble for another score in the second quarter. Webb, who has accounted for more than 70 percent of UAB’s offense on the season, had 188 of the Blazers 226 yards in the first half.
“(Ofensive coordinator) Charlie (Taaffe) called a great game,” O’Leary said. “Say that I called those last two possessions when we didn’t make it. But this is just a good win to have. Any win away is a good win.”
UCF didn’t punt in the first half and scored on four of its first six possessions, gashing UAB both with Hodges’ accurate passing and Harvey’s hard running between the tackles. Hodges hit on 12 of his first 16 passes and had 129 yards by the time the game was just 17 minutes old. And Harvey, who seems to be picking up steam as the season has progressed, topped the 1,000-yard mark for the season early in the second period with an 18-yard scamper off left end.
Hodges had touchdown passes of 12 yards (to Kamar Aiken) and five yards (to fullback Billy Giovanetti) and threw for 188 yards against the nation’s 120th ranked pass defense in the first half.
UCF missed two other chances to grow its lead when Hodges uncharacteristically threw interceptions at the 11 and 3-yard line. He tried forcing a pass in on the first error and was hit from behind on the second one. It was Hodges’ first multi-interception games since Sept. 26 when he had a dismal four-interception day at East Carolina.
Source: John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFathletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at [email protected]