UCF’s fairy tale sprint into the nation’s Top 25 rankings came to a screeching, nightmarish halt when Southern Miss ripped off 31 consecutive points and upset the No. 25/23-ranked Knights 31-21 at Bright House Networks Stadium.
For a UCF squad that had won 11 consecutive conference games over two years and five straight this season, losing for the first time in more than a month was shocking to the system if not downright stunning.
“Really, this is just a punch in the face that brings us back to reality and shows that we can be beaten,” said wide out Brian Watters, one of 19 seniors honored before the final regular-season home game in Orlando. “We have to come out here and play our best football or the results can be the same again regardless of who we play.”
At 7-3 overall and 5-1 in C-USA play, UCF is still in total control of its own destiny as far as accomplishing its stated goal of winning the league championship. The Knights must now go on the road the next two weeks and beat either Tulane or Memphis to sew up the East Division and possibly both to sew up home field advantage for the Dec. 4 C-USA title game.
That’s a bit of solace to a UCF team that was clearly stunned at all that transpired on Saturday. “(Complacency), that’s what it looked like because we definitely weren’t ready to play,” said standout defensive end Bruce Miller, who had three tackles, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry. “This is what happens when you’re not ready. … The goals are still there. This is a setback, but we just need to regroup, get in and figure out what went wrong and start on Tulane. Our goals are still there and we’ll keep pushing for them.”
Facing its third consecutive no-huddle, hurry-up offense in as many weeks, UCF’s defense seemed to wear down and was unable to get key stops. Southern Miss (7-3, 4-2) churned out 24 first downs and 414 yards of offense, but even more troubling was UCF’s inability to get key stops on third down. Southern Miss converted 11 of 16 times on third down, allowing the Golden Eagles to run 72 plays compared to UCF’s 59.
“You play the schedule you are dealt. When you win those games you don’t make excuses, so you shouldn’t make them when you lose,” UCF coach George O’Leary said of UCF’s difficult three-game stretch against East Carolina, Houston and Southern Miss. “We didn’t make plays on defense, we give up way too many easy pass plays and we’re too soft at linebacker. And offensively, we didn’t make enough plays.”
That UCF jumped up 14-0 on Saturday by routinely gashing Southern Miss through the air and on the ground made the defeat even more shocking to the Knights and the 40,358 fans in attendance. Tailback Ronnie Weaver had 108 yards in his first six carries and freshman phenom quarterback Jeff Godfrey ran for a touchdown and threw another one as UCF led by 14 points after just 9 minutes and 20 seconds of play.
But all of that positive momentum came crumbling down when Weaver ran for just four yards the rest of the game, Godfrey uncharacteristically threw two interceptions and a UCF defense that has been nationally ranked most of the season couldn’t get stops. Southern Miss junior quarterback Austin Davis riddled UCF’s secondary and linebackers for 264 yards and four touchdowns and he was sacked just once all day.
“We’ve been stressing (third-down stops) for the last three games and we’re still making mistakes and not playing our assignments. We can’t move forward if we can’t get off the field on third down,” said cornerback Josh Robinson, who had an interception, a pass break-up and five tackles. “It’s a shock, especially when you expect to win and everybody has the mindset that we’re going to win. But we didn’t execute and we couldn’t pull it off.”
UCF’s offense came into the game averaging 41.5 points a game against C-USA foes and the Knights had been so efficient of late that they punted just twice in the previous eight quarters. But with little going on the ground, UCF became too one-dimensional and Southern Miss sent blitzes at Godfrey in waves.
The true freshman completed 16 of 25 passes for 190 yards, but was hurt by a couple of wide-open drops by his receivers. He was sacked three times and mostly hemmed in when trying to scramble for yardage, running for just six net yards. And Godfrey was briefly knocked from the game when he was hit by two Southern Miss players, but he returned to throw a 40-yard touchdown pass to senior wide out Jamar Newsome (five catches, 100 yards) in the fourth quarter.
“It was shocking a little bit, but Southern Miss did a good job adjusting to our offense,” Godfrey said. “I think we got too relaxed, that was our big problem. Everybody was just in cool mode and we fell short after that.”
Trailing 17-14 at the half, UCF suffered a couple of bad blows when Southern Miss marched 65 yards in 10 plays and scored when 6-foot-6 receiver DeAndre Brown outjumped 5-foot-9 UCF cornerback Emery Allen for a 10-yard touchdown. What was particularly galling to the Knights was that Southern Miss converted on third down three times – once by penalty and twice with double-digit gainers.
“(Third down) has been a problem for a few weeks now. That hurt us really bad, not being able to get off the field and letting them sustain drives, hold onto the ball and put points up,” Miller said. “Every week our offense isn’t going to be able to score 40 points, so we have to make stops and get off the field.”
And when UCF missed a chance to trim the lead to seven points when Jamie Boyle’s 30-yard field goal sailed wide left, the Knights were left to try and stomach a loss that robbed them of their unbeaten status in conference play and will almost certainly knock them out of the Top 25 after a one-week stay.
“This is a very frustrating loss. We’ve worked so hard, but we didn’t execute in this one like we needed to,” Newsome said. “We jumped out to a great start and I’m not sure if everybody got comfortable or what, but the momentum shifted. It’s very disappointing, but all we can do now is put this loss under our belts, get back on the ball and perform better.”
John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.