Replay: Strange, Foreign Ground for the Knights

The sun somehow still came up Sunday morning in Orlando—and that's after the UCF football team went 0-1 on a given regular-season Saturday for the first time since November 2016.
Knights' fans may have a tough time consoling themselves after the end of a remarkable 25-game regular-season win streak that absolutely captured the fancy of the college football world.
Yet, for three hours and 49 minutes at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, fans of both teams saw all the extremes of emotion, execution, euphoria, excitement and exhaustion.
They saw 31 unanswered points by the team that did not win the game. They nearly saw UCF match the biggest comeback in its history.
They saw so many changes in momentum they became almost impossible to remember. Penalties, game-changing plays, ultra-physical play that seemed to routinely leave players from both rosters knocked to the ground. There were three critical fourth-down conversions (two by the home team) just in the final half of the final period.
In the end, Pitt made one more play, scored one more point.
Hardly anyone in the UCF locker room has had experience being on the short end of a score in September.
For those who spoke to the media after the game—among coach Josh Heupel, receiver Gabriel Davis, running back Otis Anderson, quarterback Dillon Gabriel and linebacker Eric Mitchell—only Mitchell has been around to see the Knights fall during the regular season and that came only in a 2016 freshman year in which he was redshirted and did not play.
Since the last time the Knights dropped a non-conference regular-season contest (Maryland in 2016 in overtime), UCF owns non-league victories over Florida International (twice), that same Maryland team (on the road), Austin Peay, South Carolina State, Florida Atlantic (twice), Florida A&M, Pittsburgh and Stanford.
How the Knights respond to this latest event—a 35-34 defeat—will go a long way toward defining their 2019 season.
The Knights had to like the karma.
UCF athletics director Danny White just happened to be assigned to Heinz Field suite number 407, matching the Orlando area code.
Knight fans looked right at home in a city where the three professional teams (Steelers, Pirates and Penguins) all wear some version of black and gold.
Meanwhile, Pitt brought back former great Mark May to serve as honorary captain.
"We need to bring our own juice today," yelled UCF offensive lineman Parker Boudreaux before the action began. "Let's wake it up!"
"Offense, defense, let's play harder and longer today. Sixty minutes," said Heupel.
The Knights found out quickly what a challenge awaited them. UCF ran only nine plays (3:35 time of possession) in a first period that included a pair of punts and a thrown interception.
After a single quarter UCF had an uncharacteristic minus-six passing yards, as the Panthers closed hard on the Knights' perimeter passing game. Two of Gabriel's first 10 passes were intercepted, the first thrown by any Knight signal-caller in 2019.
After the home team ran a blocked punt in for a score six minutes into the second quarter, Pitt led 21-0—the reverse of the previous Saturday when the Knights grabbed that identical early lead against Stanford. The Panthers produced sustained 75- and 72-yard drives for their first two touchdowns, as quarterback Kenny Pickett completed his first five throws for a combined 74 yards.
Thanks to a Pitt missed field goal, the Knights were fortunate to trail only 7-0 after the opening period despite being outgained 176-37. The Panthers' initial interception marked their first in seven games.
A forced fumble by Mitchell enabled Adrian Killins Jr. to cap a 27-yard TD drive with his 11-yard run. Then, the visitors drove from their own seven to the Pitt 25 for a Dylan Barnas field goal that clipped the margin to 21-10 at halftime (just after a razor-close decision that ruled Davis out of bounds on a catch in the end zone).
The encouragement in the locker room at intermission came from all corners:
"Let's go, we're good, we're good."
"Gotta make a play, man."
"Bring your own stuff."
Added Heupel, "We came here to play for 60 minutes, let's go play. It's zero-zero" -- and center Jordan Johnson, "We're gonna find a way, man."
Gabriel threw for 143 yards in the third period alone. His second pass after halftime went for 65 yards to Davis. The Knights' defense forced punts on the first three Pitt drives in that quarter, allowing 25 combined yards.
Anderson's highlight-version 87-yard punt return (second longest in UCF history) flipped the script and gave UCF a lead -- and it went to 31-21 for the Knights on Gabriel's second TD throw to Davis.
But Pitt wasn't finished. Three major penalties versus UCF played big roles in a 75-yard Panther response that made it 31-28.
The home team missed a chance to tie by pulling a field-goal opportunity left with 10:50 left, then UCF missed its own bid to seize control when Greg McCrae came up a yard short on a fourth-down run try at the Pitt 15 (not long after a 50-yard completion to Tre Nixon).
Barnas added a field goal for 34-28 at 4:36, leaving the Panthers to drive from their own 21. It took 12 plays and a pair of fourth-down conversions (not to mention that trick play from the three-yard line that effectively won the game), but the home team somehow ended up making one more play—and that was enough.
Gabriel and Nixon combined for 287 receiving yards, but the Panthers limited the UCF running game to 85 net yards (including six sacks).
"We've said it before, winning is fragile," Heupel told his team.
"It's never one play call, never one play, never one anything over 60 minutes.
"What's special about what we've done until today is that we've found a way to be better over the 60-miniute clock than the team we played. We were one point, one play away.
"Does it hurt? Heck, yes. We have too much invested.
"Does that define who we are? It won't. It defines this week but it does not define the 2019 season. It's a long journey. We are in a race against ourselves to be as good as we can as fast as we can.
"Today we weren't good enough. Let it hurt today. Let's get better and continue on our 2019 journey.
"We can descend or we can pull tighter together.
"It's been a long time since we lost a regular-season game around here.
"It should hurt."
And so the Knights walked quietly out into the still-warm Pittsburgh evening, knowing there were all sorts of little things they could have done just a little bit better Saturday afternoon. A few of those became the difference between standing 4-0 on Sunday morning as opposed to 3-1.
It's new territory for a UCF program that had enjoyed unmatched success since the start of the 2017 campaign.
Now, a slightly different challenge awaits the Knights as they head into American Athletic Conference play this week.
Heupel and his team know they are fully capable of making this 2019 season one to remember.
There's work to be done.