But ultimately UCF’s miscues and penalties led to a poor start and a devastating fifth turnover of the night at the 11-yard line ruined what had the potential to be a storybook comeback led by freshman phenom quarterback Jeff Godfrey.
Godfrey nearly led UCF back from a 21-point deficit with two dazzling rushing touchdowns and seemed poised to take the Knights in for a tying score before a fifth turnover silenced a noisy Bright House Networks Stadium crowd of 43,020. And by the end of the night, a 28-21 loss to NC State left the Knights kicking themselves for their own errors and forced to mull a blown opportunity.
“This is one of those games that you have nightmares about,” UCF senior wide receiver Brian Watters said. “You don’t want to come out and make as many mistakes as we made because you make it impossible to be victorious. We feel it wasn’t as much what they did, but us killing ourselves early in the game. Hats off to the team for fighting back, but when you make that many mistakes it’s kind of hard to come back and win.”
Even in defeat, UCF (1-1) had to be encouraged with the dynamic playmaking abilities of Godfrey, who entered the game in the third quarter in place of struggling starter Rob Calabrese. The Miami product finished as UCF’s leading rusher with 53 yards and two scores and he connected on seven of his 10 passes for another 107 yards.
UCF’s thrilling comeback effort died with 51 seconds to play when Godfrey scrambled to his left and hit Quincy McDuffie for a 20-yard gainer, but the ball was jarred loose and recovered by NC State’s Terrell Manning.
“It’s just a shame the way that it ended with the catch and fumble,” UCF head coach George O’Leary said. “We had a chance there, but we just made too many mistakes. With all of the mistakes, sometimes you just can’t overcome them all.”
Calabrese, who was solid in the season-opening victory against South Dakota, threw two interceptions – both of them leading to NC State touchdowns. Wide receiver Nico Flores was intercepted on a reverse pass, while tailback Latavius Murray had a Wolfpack punt bounce off his left shin for another turnover. And UCF made matters worse with five penalties, another lost fumble and three sacks allowed.
“We beat ourselves offensively and I didn’t get the job done. I’m very disappointed, but we have to learn from this,” Calabrese said. “(His second interception) sailed on me, I didn’t have my feet set and it got away from me. If I don’t throw that pick-six it’s a different game. I’m very frustrated and disappointed, but I have to learn from this and have a good week of practice.”
O’Leary said he wouldn’t make a decision on a starting quarterback – Godfrey or Calabrese – until after grading the game films and conferring with offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe.
Stressed O’Leary: “I’m going to play the guy (at quarterback) who gives us the best chance to win.”
The Knights hit the road for the first time this season next Saturday, travelling to Buffalo. The Knights scored 16 second-half points last season to rally past the Bulls, 23-17, in Orlando.
UCF’s four nonconference games are at the front of the schedule, allowing the Knights to spend the season’s final two months focusing on Conference USA play.
Godfrey made a strong case for becoming UCF’s starting quarterback by scrambling for touchdown runs of 6 yards and 1 yard. He routinely made potentially disastrous plays positive ones with his quick feet and quick thinking. An NC State defense that kept UCF bottled up most of the night had little success even getting to Godfrey for contact during the Knights’ furious rally.
“What Jeff did was amazing out there,” said UCF defensive end Darius Nall, who had a sack, a pass breakup and four quarterback hurries. “I think he went out there and showed everybody that he’s not really like a freshman at all.”
UCF’s defense played much better in the second half than it did in the first half, setting the stage for the comeback bid. UCF’s defense allowed just five first downs and only 65 yards after halftime and routinely got the ball back into Godfrey’s hands with big stops.
“In the game of football you keep fighting all 60 minutes no matter what,” said redshirt freshman defensive tackle Victor Gray, who have five tackles and two stops for losses. “You just have to be relentless and know they’ll get tired before I do. It’s a war out there. Either tighten up (in the second half) or don’t play. We tightened up.”
UCF trailed 21-7 at the half following a frustrating first two quarters to the game. NC State’s first touchdown came following a tipped-pass interception, the second one on a blown pass coverage and a third one after a punt ricocheted off the left shin of Murray. NC State scored three plays after the punt snafu, converting a third-and-11 play from 21 yards out.
The Knights weren’t particularly sharp early in the game. They ran for just five yards in the first half, making the offense too one-dimensional. Tackle Chris Martin was whistled for a holding penalty that negated a 35-yard catch and run from A.J. Guyton
The Knights signs of life when Quincy McDuffie returned a kickoff 93 yards for a score that cut the deficit to 21-7. McDuffie, a former 200-meter state track champion followed the block of Khymest Williams and ran away from NC State’s Dontae Johnson.
But in the end, there were too many mistakes to overcome to pull off what would have been a comeback for the ages.
“Like the fans we should be annoyed because we had chances to make something happen, but made too many foolish mistakes,” O’Leary fumed. “It was little things like jumping offsides. That’s just a lack of concentration.”
John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.