John Denton's Knights Insider: Challenging Each Other

Oct. 18, 2011

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By John Denton

ORLANDO - As he does at the end of every practice, head coach George O'Leary called his UCF football team up to the middle of field for a post-mortem talk. Only this time, O'Leary's fiery, 10-minute talk was laced with a challenge.

With the Knights sitting at 3-3 before Thursday night's game in Birmingham against winless UAB, O'Leary gave this UCF squad a history lesson. He reminded them of how his 2007 squad was once 3-3, but rallied to win seven straight to reach the Liberty Bowl. He told them how the 2009 team was 3-3 and went 5-2 the rest of the way to reach the postseason. And even though few of them needed the reminder, O'Leary recalled how last year's team started 2-2, but won nine of the last 10 to author the finest season in school history.

Then, came the challenge: Win the rest of the games this season. O'Leary is the ultimate one-game-at-a-time coach, but he knows that as long as the Knights keep winning they can control their own destiny as to reaching another C-USA title game and a second straight Liberty Bowl.

``Coach O'Leary just spoke about finding out what kind of team are we? Are we the type who can get past the three losses and win out from here? Or are we going to fold?'' said senior middle linebacker Josh Linam, who is second on the team in total tackles with 29. ``I think this team is strong enough to press on and win the rest of our games.''

With all three of UCF's losses coming on the road, O'Leary and his players assuredly realize that their season could be at a crossroads heading into Thursday's game at UAB. Win this week and the Knights should be heavily favored in home games against Memphis (Oct. 29) and Tulsa (Nov. 3). That would put UCF in perfect position for late-season road games at Southern Miss (Nov. 12) and East Carolina (Nov. 19) that will likely decide the East Division crown.

``Everything that we want is still within reach. I know now that we can't have the best record in school history, but we can tie it,'' senior wide receiver A.J. Guyton said. ``We can still win the East, go to the conference championship and the Liberty Bowl. All of our goals are still out there and it's just a matter of us going out there and getting them.''

Guyton was one of the seniors who spoke up at UCF's team meeting Sunday night following the SMU loss a day earlier. After O'Leary addressed the team, several players on the team talked to the rest of the squad about sticking together and the goals for the season still being within reach. It ultimately ended up being a players' only meeting, but it was the message that was more important than the exclusion of the coaches during the pep talk.

``On Sunday when we had our team meeting, after all of the coaches left and the travel team was in there that goes out and competes, we got all of the boys together,'' Guyton remembered. ``We told everybody that we have to pick it up. In '07, my freshman year, we were the same at 3-3 and we won the conference championship by dedicating ourselves. I reminded them that we have to give it all we've got because that's what's expected of us.''

UCF fell behind 17-0 on Saturday, but did rally to get within 24-10 at one point in the third quarter. However, SMU put the game out of reach a play later with a 72-yard touchdown pass. Breakdowns across the board - allowing a punt return for a touchdown, red zone problems on offense and uncharacteristically poor pass coverage - contributed to UCF's loss. But what troubled O'Leary the most was a lack of fire and emotion from his team on Saturday.

``There were a couple of stick-a-pin-in-the-balloon plays that just made you go, `Whoa!''' O'Leary said. ``Then, (as a coach) you had to become somewhat of a cheerleader on the sidelines getting the kids going. I've addressed that with our players. Experience has to take over now with how we handle things and how we deal with this.

``The big thing is that our good players have to start playing great and our players who are just learning have to play good,'' O'Leary continued. ``Everybody wants to win and nobody wants to lose. But how bad do you want to win? That's what it breaks down to.''

Guyton, who had a 48-yard reception late in the fourth quarter from backup quarterback Blake Bortles, said the lack of energy in the game was shocking and it has been addressed among the players.

``That's not like us. (Defensive end) Troy Davis got onto the whole team and said that we have to get back to being that nasty team again,'' Guyton said. ``The energy seemed kind of down, but we can't go out there like that anymore.''

Senior right tackle Nick Pieschel said that past experience has taught him that the Knights can dig out of this slow start and still have a special season. He said he's been talking more than ever to UCF's young players, stressing that there's plenty of football left to play. He admitted that he was inspired by O'Leary's challenge to the football team.

``We were just trying to get everything back into perspective and get our heads right again. We know now that we can't lose again,'' Pieschel said. ``Coach told us about 2005, `07 and 2009 and how those teams had the same records and they lived up to the challenges. ... We're trying to get back to the championship. Everything is still within our grasp, so it's just up to us to go do it.''

John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.