Sept. 6, 2010
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - It's no coincidence, UCF coach George O'Leary said on Monday, that one of the Knights' best seasons in school history all began with one of the biggest victories ever at UCF.
The 2007 season, one that ended up with UCF winning the Conference USA championship and earning a berth in the Liberty Bowl, all got started with a thrilling 25-23 victory at North Carolina State. The confidence and positive vibes gained from UCF's first ever victory against an Atlantic Coast Conference school were undeniable and helped pave the way for that 10-4 season and 7-1 mark in C-USA play.
``It was a good first game for us beating a BCS team,'' O'Leary remembered. ``That opening play Kevin Smith took it the distance and then we hung on to win. Anytime you win games like that it's good for you and it carries over to the next game. They say you learn a lot more from losing, but I never have. It's a lot easier to win games like that and then correct mistakes. That game really gave our kids more confidence with some of the things that we were trying to get done that season.''
Nothing would be sweeter to UCF than to pull off a repeat performance Saturday night at Bright House Networks Stadium against NC State. Many of UCF current seniors were freshmen on the squad that upset the Wolfpack and the mere mention of NC State usually elicits big smiles.
``We all remember what happened in 2007 against NC State and we know they are a really good team and we'll have to bring our `A' game again if we're going to beat them,'' said A.J. Guyton, who had a then-record five catches for a freshman against the Wolfpack three seasons ago.
UCF (1-0) comes into this game with loads of confidence after whipping South Dakota 38-7 last Saturday night at home. The Knights both dominant and efficient while piling up 472 yards and 27 first downs and smothering the Coyotes in the second half (79 yards, no points).
O'Leary said UCF's experience level with 18 seniors and chemistry with 17 returning starters was especially noticeable what with the fewest errors in an opening game in his seven years with the Knights. UCF did not have a turnover, did not yield a sack and committed just three penalties all night.
NC State (1-0) is coming off a similarly easy victory. The Wolfpack actually trailed Western Carolina 7-0 before scoring on seven straight drives and coasted to a 48-7 victory. Standout quarterback Russell Wilson, back from the past few months of playing Minor League baseball, completed 21 of 31 passes for 306 yards and four touchdowns.
``They're very impressive and they had a good first game with Western Carolina,'' O'Leary said. ``They have a lot of talented athletes and they have great team speed. They quarterback is a playmaker who can hurt you with his arm or his feet. And they have good receivers who can go the distance after the catch. So I was impressed with them. And defensively, a lot of them show up at the ball at the same time. They are well-coached on both sides of the ball.''
Like with NC State's Wilson, UCF got a dazzling performance from its quarterback in the opener. Junior Rob Calabrese, a part-time starter each of the past two seasons, played his finest game in a UCF uniform with 176 yards passing and an 11-yard touchdown pass to Guyton. He hit on his first nine throws and 12 of 15 throws for the game.
Most importantly, Calabrese kept drives alive with several key throws on second and third downs. UCF had drives of 75, 84 and 80 with Calabrese under center. And his 11-yard touchdown toss to Guyton was especially impressive because he hung in the pocket and waited for the deep route to come open.
``He made really good reads and he didn't panic,'' O'Leary said. ``He did stuff standing in the pocket that he wouldn't have done last year. He probably would have thrown the check down to the flat instead of staying poised. Where I see Rob improving is his poise of standing in there and letting things develop.''
UCF's two-point defeat of NC State developed three seasons ago when the Knights got off to a glorious start and did enough down the stretch to win. Smith, an All-American that season, burst off the left side for an 80-yard score on the game's first play. True freshman linebacker Lawrence Young, now a senior, was all over the field making tackles (8.5 stops) and had his first collegiate interception. And then freshman Bruce Miller, now C-USA's reining Defensive Player of the Year, provided what proved to be the game-winning points with a sack for a safety.
``The last time we went up there, we came out of the gates firing everything that we had and we were able to get a lead early and we were able to hold onto it at the end,'' Miller recalled. ``We're going to have to have the same intensity and enthusiasm this week and sustain it. We have to finish that game.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.