John Denton's Knights Insider: UCF Poised for Thursday Night Matchup with UAB

Oct. 19, 2011

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By John Denton

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - One by one, UCF's football players figuratively painted a picture of a team at a crossroads and one of two paths assuredly are dead ahead in the coming weeks.

Despite being 3-3 overall and 1-1 in Conference USA play, UCF knows that all of its goals - such as the C-USA East title, a spot in the league championship game and a chance to get back to the Liberty Bowl - still exist. All the Knights need to do is repeat a history of late-season success and put together a long winning streak, starting with Thursday's game in Birmingham against UAB (0-6, 0-3).

The other path isn't so rosy and involves a team struggling under the weight of expectations and collapsing in times of adversity. UCF head coach George O'Leary talked to his team on Thursday about the importance of responding in tough times, and he fully expects his team to bounce back and make the second half of this season a special one.

``We're 3-3 and that's about where we were a couple of times in my career here and we ended up doing what we had to get done those times,'' said O'Leary, referring to UCF rallies from 3-3 in 2007 and 2009 and 2-2 in 2010.

``That was my message to the team. I told them that we still have a lot of games left in conference play and we control our own destiny.''

To remain in complete control of that destiny, UCF must find a way to get past their woes on the road this season. Whereas the Knights are 3-0 and have outscored foes 108-9 at Bright House Networks Stadium, they are a confounding 0-3 on the road. There were seven-point losses to FIU and BYU and last week's disappointing 38-17 defeat in Dallas against SMU.

UCF was 6-1 on the road and in neutral site games last season and is looking to get back to those dominant ways away from home. Thursday's game at Legion Field won't exactly be hostile with an expected small crowd and temperatures in the high 30s, but still, the Knights are eager to figure out their issues away from home.

``I really don't know what is going on with that,'' senior middle linebacker Josh Linam said of UCF's road woes. ``Maybe young guys aren't used to atmosphere. I don't know if there's an excuse for it, but we need to come to play whether we have fans cheering for us or not. I think we'll do that this week.''

One needed area of improvement is UCF's special teams play. A case could be made that the Knights might be undefeated right now if not for various breakdowns in the special teams departments. And that's particularly shocking considering that UCF had among the best special teams groups in the nation last season.

UCF muffed punts inside the 10-yard line against FIU and BYU, resulting in go-ahead scores in each of those losses. There was a tying kickoff return for a touchdown against BYU and a 92-yard punt return for a score last week against SMU. Another long punt return early in the SMU game set up another score and had the Knights playing out of a hole all afternoon.

UCF led the nation in kick returns last season and ranked second in punt coverage, but the losses of players such as Bruce Miller, Jamar Newsome and David Williams are being felt now on those coverage units. O'Leary said the coaching staff has made it a point to get more veteran players on the units, but the breakdowns have come because players are trying to do too much in an effort to create big plays.

Making big plays is a point of emphasis on the offensive side of the ball, and that's one reason that O'Leary has vowed to play redshirt freshman quarterback Blake Bortles some along with starter Jeff Godfrey. Godfrey, the reigning C-USA Freshman of the Year, has completed 68.1 percent of his passes, but he's thrown just two touchdown passes all season. O'Leary wants Godfrey sticking in the pocket longer so that he can hit more big plays down the field.

Enter Bortles, an Oviedo native, who found A.J. Guyton for a 48-yard gainer last week upon entering the game in the fourth quarter. The 6-foot-4, 223-pound Bortles is more of a classic pocket passer, and O'Leary has been impressed with how he's delivered this season when pressed into duty in relief of Godfrey. He impressively moved the offense against BYU and responded with 148 yards and a TD pass to J.J. Worton last Saturday against SMU.

Put it all together - the struggling special teams, the offense and a defense that uncharacteristically gave up several big plays last week - and UCF needs more solid play from several members of the team. Linam, one of the senior leaders on the squad, knows that there is still plenty to play for this season and he's spoken up plenty this week to encourage his teammates that it's time to put together a long winning streak.

``Right now, it's all about making sure that the team sticks together and making sure team morale stays up,'' Linam said. ``We're trying to let everyone know that all of our goals are still very much within reach. We just have to go and do it on the field now.''

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