Playing before a Bright House Networks Stadium crowd of 40,281, a school-record 25,000 students and a nationally-televised audience provided by ESPN, UCF gave a resounding answer to those questions and showed itself to be potentially Conference USA’s best team.
The Knights stormed out to a 28-0 lead on the strength of big plays from freshman quarterback Jeff Godfrey and sophomore safety Kemal Ishmael and did just enough in the second half for a resounding 42-7 whipping of UAB.
“Bouncing back the way that we did shows a lot about the character of this team,” said senior wide receiver Brian Watters, who caught a four-yard touchdown just before the half. “Losing to K-State was a setback for us, but we took responsibility for it as a team. It showed that we might hit a few stones along the way, but we came back with one goal and that was to win the game, and we did just that.”
The blowout victory was also sweet revenge for a UCF team that was shutout 15-0 by UAB two seasons ago at Bright House Networks Stadium. The Knights were reminded of that loss all this past week with “15-0” signs plastered all over their locker room, weight room and meeting spaces.
“It was `15-0′ all week … in our hotel rooms, our locker rooms and in the lobby of the hotel. And then when we got in the locker room (before Wednesday’s game), the signs changed to UCF 56, UAB 0,” Hallman said. “You get tired of (15-0 talk) and that motivated us a lot. The 56-0, that’s what we were aiming for. I’m just disappointed that we didn’t get the shutout.”
Rotating Godfrey and junior Rob Calabrese effectively at quarterback, UCF’s offense grinded out 399 yards and 23 first downs in its finest all-around performance of the season. And the defense, which entered the game as Conference USA’s best unit in total defense and pass defense, made it stand up by getting two big turnovers from Ishmael, a fumble return for a score by Josh Robinson and another touchdown from freshman defensive tackle Troy Davis.
“All areas offense, defense and special teams played a really good ballgame,” UCF head coach George O’Leary said. “They were very focused all week. It’s a good group with good senior leadership. We have a lot of ability on all facets of the team.”
UCF (3-2 overall and 1-0 in C-USA play) showed no lingering effects from the crushing 17-13 loss to Kansas State 10 days ago, putting together its best effort of the season on both sides of the ball. The Knights held a player’s only meeting in the days after the faltering against K-State, stressing to one another that there was still plenty to play for this season – namely a C-USA championship.
“To open Conference USA play like that, make a statement and put together a complete game was really special for us,” senior defensive end Bruce Miller said. “We put a statement out there and this is how we’ll have to play every week.”
UAB (1-4 overall and 0-2 in C-USA play) has had a knack for falling behind early in games and coming back, and Wednesday night was no different. The Blazers trailed Florida Atlantic by 13 points, Troy by 23 points and Tennessee by 16 points and rallied back into all three of those games. On Wednesday, the Blazers were down 28 points just after halftime before mounting a brief rally. But UCF ultimately put a stop to the comeback and exerted its dominance.
Following UAB’s lone score of the night, UCF responded with a 72-yard scoring drive that was capped by a nine-yard touchdown run by Latavius Murray, his first score since the 2008 season. Then, Davis – one of UCF’s most pleasant surprises this season at defensive tackle – returned an interception 29 yards for the first touchdown of his collegiate career.
The Knights will be playing on ESPN’s national platform again next Wednesday night with a game in Huntington, W.Va., against Marshall. UCF beat the Herd 21-20 in Orlando last season in dramatic fashion. The Knights have beaten Marshall in each of the past five meetings, winning the last two times in West Virginia.
Godfrey, UCF’s freshman phenom quarterback, ran for 80 yards and completed nine of 11 passes for another 137 yards. And Calabrese, who hadn’t seen significant playing time since the second game of the season, played throughout, running for 40 yards and throwing the touchdown pass to Watters just before halftime.
Already up 21-0 at the half, UCF effectively ended the game early in the third period when UCF standout safety Kemal Ishmael forced a second big defensive play of the night. Ishmael’s hard hit forced UAB quarterback David Isabelle to fumble and the loose ball was returned 56 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Josh Robinson. Earlier in the night, Ishmael picked off a Bryan Ellis pass to set up UCF’s first touchdown of the game.
“Kemal made a really good hit to knock the ball loose and then I just wanted to do what the coaches are always saying – scoop and score,” Robinson said with a laugh.
Ishmael, the sophomore who O’Leary considers UCF’s most underrated player, almost had a second interception in the fourth quarter when he hauled in a Bryan Ellis pass but landed with one toe on the sideline.
UCF dominated play on both sides of the ball and led 21-0 at the half. And the score could have been even more lopsided had the Knights not had deep scoring drives twice end because of fumbles. The 21-point lead was UCF’s biggest advantage at the half in a home game since 2007 when the Knights led Marshall 27-3 at the break.
Said UAB coach Neil Callaway: “They totally outplayed us, outcoached us and did everything better than we did and that’s my fault. In the first half they really embarrassed us.”
UCF got touchdown runs of four and two yards from Weaver in the first half and Calabrese hit senior wide out Watters for a four-yard touchdown pass with six seconds remaining in the second quarter.
UCF’s dominance in the first half was reflected in both the score and the statistics. The Knights outgained UAB 265-75, had nine more first downs and was on the field offensively for six more minutes in the opening half.
And UCF’s defense repeatedly smothered a UAB offense that came in No. 8 in the nation in total offense. UCF’s attacking and aggressive defense dropped the Blazers for losses on six plays in the first half and didn’t allow UAB to drive the ball deeper than the 27-yard line.
“In the three years that I’ve been here we’ve never blown them out and they had never blown us out and it was always a physical grind for four quarters,” Hallman said. “The biggest margin was 15-0 and all week we talked about that loss. We talked about jumping on teams early and that’s what we tried to do being up 21-0 at halftime. We wanted to keep our foot on the gas the whole game.”
Godfrey had both the longest run (35 yards) and the longest pass play (44 yards) in the first half. He accounted for 158 of UCF’s first 226 yards on the ground and through the air before slightly injuring his neck late in the second quarter on a scramble. In a first half in which Godfrey completed seven of nine passes and ran for another 67 yards, his only flaw was a fumble on a scramble run early in the second period.
The Knights were without top wide receiver A.J. Guyton because of knee, ankle and heel injuries, but the deep and talented wide receiving corps picked up the slack. Newsome, a senior, caught three balls for 68 yards in the first two quarters, while Watters caught another three passes and Kamar Aiken and Ricky Kay each snagged two passes early on.
John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.