Knights look to recover from disastrous start

Historic loss for UCF

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  • | 8:50 a.m. September 20, 2015
Photo by: Isaac Babcock - UCF wide receiver Chris Johnson tries to stop Furman's Trey Robinson from intercepting a pass Saturday during UCF's first loss to an FCS team since joining the NCAA FBS in 1996.
Photo by: Isaac Babcock - UCF wide receiver Chris Johnson tries to stop Furman's Trey Robinson from intercepting a pass Saturday during UCF's first loss to an FCS team since joining the NCAA FBS in 1996.
  • Winter Park - Maitland Observer
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Standing on their home field moments after a crushing upset to a formerly winless team Saturday night, the UCF Knights had to form a new game plan: how to recover from a 16-15 upset loss and historically disastrous 0-3 season start, and doing it on the road against a heavily favored football powerhouse.

That the Knights (0-3) just lost to their first FCS opponent in nearly two decades only added to the pain of the worst start since the infamous winless 2004 season.

Against Furman, (1-2) which until Saturday night had one of the worst records in the lower-level FCS and had only beaten one FBS team in 26 tries, the Knights' offense reached historic lows. Furman had allowed FCS rival Coastal Carolina to amass 488 yards in the first game of the season. They had given up 583 to Virginia Tech a week ago.

In stark contrast to a team high-water-mark, the Knights Saturday night used three backup quarterbacks in an offense that would return just 269 total yards in the game — roughly half what NFL-bound QB Blake Bortles would return in leading a UCF offense against a top 10 FBS team in the Fiesta Bowl less than two years prior.

The Knights entered the game ranked No. 126 of 127 FBS teams in ground offense. Their passing game was little better.

Absent starting quarterback Justin Holman, who had led the Knights to a 9-4 finish last season and then broke his finger against Stanford last Saturday, the Knights were forced to rely on a three-man backup QB corps that had a game and a half of combined field time.

Unlike Ohio State, which last season deployed a third-string quarterback in a major bowl game and won, the Knights' depth weakness was revealed immediately.

Head coach George O'Leary continued to lean on stand-in starter Bo Schneider, who had thrown for less than 50 yards playing the majority of the Knights' loss to Stanford the week prior. Against Furman, whose defense had allowed an average of five touchdowns per game this season, Schneider would collect just 63 yards in the air, lose five yards on the ground, grab zero touchdowns, and throw an interception deep in Furman territory.

Third-string backup Tyler Harris was no better, collecting 35 passing yards on 17 attempts, with two of his nine caught passes landing in the hands of Furman defenders. His second interception, in UCF's final drive of the game, would hammer in the last nail in the Knights' coffin in the final minute. The Paladins would kneel out the clock in their final drive, mercifully avoiding an additional score.

"We have to improve," O'Leary said after the game. "You can’t be dropping balls, you can’t be fumbling, and you can’t be turning the ball over out there."

Fourth-string quarterback Nick Patti, who the Knights largely used as a running back and receiver against the Paladins, was the Knights' most potent offensive player, despite having the least playing time at quarterback. Playing as a Kyle Israel-style quarterback, he ran for 58 yards and caught a four-yard pass in a Wild Knight play, giving him 62 total yards on the game. He also scored UCF's only touchdown.

Against the Knights, Furman set two records at once: Paladin kicker Jon Hollingsworth kicked a 55-yard go-ahead field goal that would seal Furman's win. It was an all-time distance record for a Furman kicker, and also the farthest field goal ever to sail through the uprights at the Bright House.

With the Knights giving up four turnovers in the game, the UCF defense had to work overtime. Again, they delivered, holding Furman to only 270 total yards while allowing an overmatched Knights' offense to edge Furman in first downs, 16-12.

The defense also provided what may have been the game's highlight. After the Knights were forced to punt when a Bo Schneider drive fizzled, the Knights defense responded with sophomore linebacker Chequan Burkett blasting through for a sack and a safety on Furman QB Reese Hannon to give the Knights a 12-0 lead.

In the second half that lead wouldn't hold up, as the Knights platooned Harris at QB for most of the final two quarters, with the freshman responding with an average of 2 yards per pass attempt and 7.5 yards per carry. The Knights would score just a field goal in the second half, as Furman took control and took the win.

The Knights now face their most daunting challenge of the season. After what was scheduled as a light start for one of the FBS's youngest teams, which emerged with three straight losses, they face perennial football powerhouse South Carolina.

But the Knights will face the Gamecocks at one of their weakest points in recent history. At 1-2, South Carolina is off to a near-historic slow start in their history in the FBS. The team hasn't forced an opponent to punt in the first half of any game this season, prompting former Gamecock and current Tampa Bay Buccaneer D.J. Swearinger to call them "the worst team in the SEC" in a tweet Saturday night.

The Gamecocks fell 52-20 to Georgia Saturday night.

The Knights have only beaten two SEC teams ever. They came close in a 28-25 loss to South Carolina two years ago — UCF's only loss in a nearly undefeated 2013.

Facing a season start that harkens back to 2004, when they didn't win a single game, they'll be looking for a comeback. The game starts at noon on Sept. 26, televised on ESPN2.


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