John Denton's Knights Insider

Sept. 28, 2009

By John Denton

Click here to sign-up to receive the Knights Insider via e-mail (e-mails will start Sept. 30)

UCF missed a golden opportunity to score a key Conference USA victory on Saturday because of miscues and missed chances and lost 19-14 to rival East Carolina.

The loss puts the Knights in a precarious position in C-USA play, dropping to 0-2 in league play and two games behind East Division favorites Southern Miss and East Carolina. But there is still plenty to on the line for UCF, namely a chance to put together a run that would lead it to the third bowl appearance in school history. And stranger things have happened in conference races before, so UCF's dream of a conference crown is still a possibility.

Before we move on to Saturday's conference game against Memphis at Bright House Networks Stadium, let's review the five things that we learned from the loss to East Carolina:

1. Turnovers can ruin even the best of efforts. Senior quarterback Brett Hodges had been a shining light for UCF's offense prior to Saturday, what with the way he calmly operated in the pocket and avoided making big mistakes.

But Hodges performed poorly on Saturday, namely because he was under duress in the pocket so often. He fired four interceptions, the final one ending whatever hopes UCF had of pulling off the come-from-behind victory. The interceptions marred an otherwise nice passing performance, one in which Hodges threw for 266 yards.

Backup tailback Brendan Kelly also saw a nice 18-yard run spoiled by a fumble that gave the Pirates the ball after UCF had established some early momentum.

UCF's offense is greatly improved over last season, but clearly the margin for error is still too thin to turn the ball over five times against a quality opponent had expect a favorable outcome. UCF must better value possessions and protect the ball if expects to get the most out of its offense.

2. Linebacker Jordan Richards is recovering from a scary collision. Richards, a native of nearby Cary, N.C., was enjoying a tremendous game at outside linebacker before a seriously scary moment happened.

On his ninth tackle of the day, Dwayne Harris' knee hit Richards in the head, causing the senior to fall on the turf face first. Richards lay motionless for almost 10 minutes before he was loaded onto a gurney near midfield. Richards gave the UCF faithful a sense of hope when he moved his hands and fingers, suggesting that he had feeling in his extremities.

Richards was examined by doctors in Greenville, N.C., on Saturday and was released from the hospital in time to rejoin his teammates on Sunday. Richards is up and about, but his return to game action is still up in the air.

3. Missed red-zone opportunities are almost like turnovers. UCF missed several chances to re-take the lead and put East Carolina on the ropes when it strung together impressive drives into Pirates territory. But an inability to convert down close sabotaged those chances.

Nick Cattoi, who earned his starting kicking job back with a strong showing two weeks ago against Buffalo, missed a short field goal and had another one blocked, robbing the Knights of six potential points.

Kamar Aiken, who had two catches for 50 yards and continued to show flashes of brilliance, again struggled on short throws and dropped a slant pass that would have been a touchdown. UCF coach George O'Leary pointed out recently that Aiken thrives on deeper catches where he's going with the flight of the ball, but struggles to catch ones where he is coming back to the ball. The slant pass to Aiken might have been tipped at the line, but it still hit him in the hands and needed to be caught.

Hodges' most frustrating interception of the day was one he threw near the goal line just before the half. Under pressure and on the run, Hodges threw the ball off his back foot and had the ball batted around before being intercepted. It was a rare moment of panic for the poised senior transfer from Wake Forest. He would have been better off throwing the ball out of bounds or taking the sack and settling for the field goal, but clearly Hodges was just trying to make something happen there.

4. UCF's defense played well enough to win, but third down continues to be a major bugaboo. Holding a big and veteran East Carolina offense to just 19 points was a major coup for the Knights defense.

There were plenty positives for a UCF defense that proved to be opportunistic, hard-hitting and quite stingy. UCF forced another three turnovers, twice knocking the ball free and getting a third turnover on an interception by linebacker Lawrence Young. UCF limited the Pirates to just 2.9 yards per rush and four different Knights had pass breakups in the secondary.

But ECU repeatedly crushed the spirits of the Knights defense by converting 10 of 17 times on third down. That allowed the Pirates to not only grind out 23 first downs, but it also kept the UCF defense on the field for more than 35 minutes.

Forcing turnovers is usually one of the top indicators of a stellar defense, and UCF has gotten more tacklers around the ball-carrier in recent weeks to knock the ball free. But getting off the field on third down is a must for any great defense, and it's certainly an area where the Knights must improve.

5. There is still plenty of fight left in this football team. For anyone wondering where the motivation and fight will come from the rest of the season for a UCF team possibly out of the hunt for a conference title, all they had to do was watch the way the team finished the fourth quarter.

Trailing 19-7 with 7:55 to play, UCF refused to go away quietly and put quite a scare into the crowd of 43,210 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. UCF marched down the field and cut the deficit to five on a touchdown strike from Hodges to Aiken with 1:06 to play. UCF scrapped and recovered the ensuing onside kick, setting up another chance. A fourth interception doomed any chance UCF had of the comeback win, but the resounding theme from the fourth quarter was that UCF showed no quit whatsoever.

Much can still be gained from this season - even if UCF can't attain its preseason goal of returning to the top of Conference USA. A 10-win season is still a possibility and that would be an incredible turnaround from last season's 4-8 disappointment. Even seven victories, a distinct possibility if the Knights continue their offensive improvement and stout defense, is certainly within reach.

UCF has major statement games left with Miami (Oct. 17), Texas (No. 7) and Houston (No. 14) and could make some national noise with a victory in any of the three games. Rival USF pulled off a shocker on Saturday at Florida State, so who says that UCF can't do the same to the Hurricanes in three weeks. The game will come after a much-needed bye week for the Knights and UCF is fully aware it can play with the `Canes after giving them a major scare last season in South Florida.

A bowl bid is also an appetizing carrot for the Knights. UCF bounced back from similarly slow starts in 2005 and 2007 to qualify for bowl games, and this season could be no different. A strong Conference USA finish, combined with an upset of Miami, Texas or Houston, would make the Knights an appealing option for bowl chairmen.

John Denton's Knights Insider runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on UCFAthletics.com. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.