Two weeks ago, after UCF started its 2020 season with a resounding 49-21 victory over Georgia Tech, we introduced a new weekly feature on this very website called “Knights of the Round Table.”
In that feature, it was my job to assign seats at this prestigious round table to UCF’s top performers from the previous weekend’s game. In that season-opening win and then in the next week’s win over ECU, it was actually difficult to narrow the lists down to five players. The performances were that impressive.
So, it says a lot that after UCF’s painful, inexcusable and mind-numbing loss to Tulsa on Saturday night, I was at a loss. I couldn’t think of five players to celebrate after that game without doing mental gymnastics to come up with explanations for my choices.
So, about 24 hours later, I went back and reevaluated. And still, I’ve got nothing. That’s why, unfortunately, this week’s Knights of the Round Table is going to be a little bit different. And by different, I mean there isn’t going to be a round table at all—it doesn’t exist this week. It’s not just because UCF lost, either. There’s usually something positive to take away from a loss. I can’t say that’s the case for Saturday night’s game, though.
After the clock hit triple zeroes at the Bounce House late Saturday night, I tweeted this:
Sometimes, when you’re in the heat of the moment during or after a game, you send something on the Twitter machine that you end up regretting. It happens all the time. But this is not one of those times.
As I sat there and watched what was largely a lifeless effort from the Knights, the words I typed there in that tweet began to take shape in my mind. Now, there’s definitely a good measure of hyperbole in that first sentence, as I’m sure some team, somewhere has deserved to lose a game more than UCF did this past weekend, but the second part of that tweet is painfully true.
And it’s coming from someone who has watched a lot of Tampa Bay Buccaneers football over the years. That collective effort from this Knights team really was one of the worst I’ve seen.
Now, it goes without saying that when I say “collective effort,” I’m not passing judgment on how hard those players were trying. I’m speaking solely about results and what transpired in the 4 hours, 19 minutes between kickoff and the final play on Saturday night at the Bounce House. Whatever that was—that was embarrassing.
Now, I understand that for whatever reason, Tulsa has always had UCF’s number. And I understand that this Golden Hurricane team pushed Oklahoma State to the edge earlier this season. Not to mention, there were some horrid results for UCF in that winless 2015 season. I get all of that. But for this team, with all of that amazing talent, to go out there and perform like that? It’s a big yikes from me, y’all.
The game started out OK, with the UCF defense flying around and creating turnovers. The Knights offense started a bit slow, but that happened in the first two games as well and things eventually got turned around. Truthfully, much of the first 29 minutes, 13 seconds of game time was perfectly OK—outside of electing to kick a chip-shot field goal instead of trusting your offense to get the ball in the end zone from the opponent’s 4-yard line.
The fact that the Knights got zero points out of that due to the missed field goal—that’s not even what bothered me. What bothered me is that, with a fourth down at the 4-yard line in an 11-point game, everything says you roll the dice and go for it. If your offense misfires, you have your defense set up in a good spot, with the opposing offense needing to go 96 yards (not to mention, you’ve already forced a safety in the game). That decision from Josh Heupel was one of my first problems of the night.
Nonetheless, UCF took a 23-5 lead at one point. Things were great, until they weren’t. Tulsa scored a touchdown late in the first half to get within 23-12. But the Knights, who possess one of the fastest offenses in all of college football, had just under a minute and two timeouts to work with before halftime.
And the better part is, they were set to receive the opening kickoff of the second half. At worst, say they get a field goal to end the second quarter. Then, they score a touchdown on the opening drive of the third. That’s a huge gut punch to Tulsa, as you now have a 33-12 lead without allowing Zach Smith and his offense a chance to make it any closer than an 11-point game. Instead, Heupel chooses to run one play and pack it up, heading to the locker room with a 23-12 lead.
What happened to open the second half made that look even worse, as a fumble on the kickoff led to an easy score for the Golden Hurricane. That touchdown made it 23-19, and you could already tell this wasn’t just an upset brewing… It was full-blown panic time as a Knights fan.
Tulsa had reason to believe it could win, and that had a lot to do with going conservative to end that first half. It’s a pet peeve of mine. Granted, I’ve never coached football and it’s easy for me to say what I would do. But I just don’t get the mindset of being content like that at the end of a half. Why not go out there, push the ball downfield and try to break the will of the opposition? Anyway, I’ll digress.
Those two specific situations bothered me to no end on Saturday night. The other thing was, of course, the continued lack of discipline from a team that has lacked discipline for years. UCF has managed to blow teams out in the last couple of years while still struggling with penalties.
I vividly remember the coaching staff being asked about penalty problems, and the answers were always the same: “That’s something we’ve got to work on.” Well, we’re seeing the same problems time and again. Nothing is getting fixed.
And now, the American Athletic Conference is in a place where it has a lot of teams that can take advantage of your mistakes. Before, the Knights had the luxury of simply out-talenting (yes, I said “out-talenting”) and out-scheming teams to mask their discipline problems. Now, if you’re making those same pre-snap mistakes or after-the-whistle errors, teams can—and will—beat you.
We’ve seen it. In last year’s loss to Tulsa, UCF was penalized 15 times for 120 yards. The Knights lost by three. On Saturday night, they were penalized 18 times for 124 yards. They lost by eight. In those close, one-possession games, you cannot beat yourselves. The Knights have done that twice in less than a year against a team they are miles ahead of, in terms of overall talent. That is inexcusable.
***Take a minute and collect yourself. Deep breath. We’re almost done talking about this game.***
OK, it’s time to dial it back. All is not lost for the Knights, who are now 2-1 (1-1 AAC). They can still turn things around and win their third conference championship in four seasons. That is not off the table. The key to getting there, though, is eliminating those self-inflicted wounds. Getting healthy would help, too, as the team was without Greg McCrae, Bentavious Thompson and Richie Grant down the stretch in Saturday’s game. Tre Nixon and Parker Boudreaux have been missing for two-plus weeks as well. Getting those guys healthy would be huge for UCF, and having a bye this week should hopefully help that.
Actually, this bye could not have come at a better time for Heupel and his team. It gives them a chance to collect themselves, put Tulsa in the rearview mirror and prepare for what’s ahead. There can be no hangover from this game, as a trip to Memphis is waiting next. And from here on out, if the Knights want to control their own destiny in the AAC, they need to be at their best and they need to get back to what they do best: Winning.