Replay: Uneasy Rests that UCF Crown

"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."
                                    --a line from King Henry the Fourth, Part Two, by William Shakespeare
Current UCF football players may have little familiarity with the long ago worlds of Shakespeare and King Henry IV of England.
But, they certainly are finding out what it means to be the two-time defending champion of the American Athletic Conference and how eager other teams are to dislodge that crown.
Two weeks back, also on the road, the Knights saw three turnovers play havoc with their plans in Pittsburgh, and the Panthers celebrated after a final-minute touchdown enabled a one-point victory.
Friday night in Cincinnati, four more turnovers made it even more difficult as UCF allowed the Bearcats 17 straight points to begin the second half. The home team held on for a 27-24 triumph over the 18th-rated Knights.
At Pitt, the Panthers produced a postgame T-shirt to coronate their victory. Friday, the second-largest crowd in Nippert Stadium history (and the biggest student delegation in school history on a "black-out" night) watched Cincinnati triumph. 
That's the sort of outsized attention UCF has earned with its long regular-season streak and its AAC winning streak, both of which dated back to 2016.
Now, both those achievements finish as glossy footnotes in the Knights' record book.
Yes, uneasy rests that crown.
The first half Friday featured a mostly lights-out defensive performance by UCF and uncharacteristic ball-control offense.
Yet the very first possession of the evening mirrored one of the key storylines of the night, as the Knights piled up time-of-possession numbers, ran lots of plays and gained plenty of yards. But too many times in the shadow of the Cincinnati goalposts, the visitors found touchdowns hard to come by.
That initial drive lasted 12 plays, 70 yards and more than three minute (an eternity by UCF standards). Josh Heupel's crew reached the Bearcat five-yard line, only to be left with a 24-yard Dylan Barnas field goal to show for its work.
UCF's next foray looked even more promising. This time the journey lasted 76 yards and 16 plays, only to see star Knight receiver Gabriel Davis slip at the goal line, leading to a Cincinnati interception that the Bearcats returned 57 yards.
By the end of the first period, UCF already held a five-minute advantage in time of possession (at one point having run 25 more plays than the home team) while limiting the Bearcats to three rushing yards.
Cincinnati tied the game with a 38-yard field goal of its own—followed by a Barnas 22-yarder (after the Knights stalled at the Bearcat five) that handed the visitors a 6-3 advantage.
Another UCF turnover—this one a misfired handoff on its own 22-yard line—set the home team in fine fashion. Cincinnati needed four plays to traverse 19 yards and grab a 10-6 lead. That alone prompted an "overrated" chant from the Bearcats' student section.
But the Knights weren't done. A 60-yard possession to the Cincinnati 13 resulted in a third Barnas field goal. Then a Tay Gowan interception left UCF at the Bearcat 12—and Greg McCrae's one-yard TD run with a minute into halftime left Heupel's group with a 16-10 intermission edge.
By halftime, UCF had outgained the home team by 139 yards, run 22 more plays and held the ball almost five more minutes.
"Let's go play ball," implored Heupel in a cramped locker room. "Thirty more minutes."
Cincinnati's first third-period possession ended at the UCF four, good for a Bearcat field goal.
After four combined punts, a first-down Gabriel pass from his own 10 was run back for a score by Ahmad Gardner—and the Bearcats had a 20-16 lead they would not relinquish. UCF's five third-period drives equated to 15 plays for a net of seven yards. Meanwhile, the home team posted 153 combined third-period yards.
The Knights were particularly undone by a 60-yard run by Michael Warren on the final play of the third quarter. One play later the Bearcats led 27-16.
UCF drove back down to the Cincinnati 14, only to see another interception prevent the visitors of making a dent in the deficit.
A 93-yard Knight march ended in a 45-yard Gabriel-to-Tre Nixon TD play. A two-point throwback pass to Adrian Killins Jr. brought UCF within 27-24.
But Cincinnati swatted the onside kick attempt out of bounds--and the visitors were out of timeouts. The final 3:09 brought about three officials' reviews. But one first down on a fourth-down run sealed it for the home team.
It marked UCF's first league defeat since the end of the 2016 season, ending the longest streak of conference wins by any team in the country.
The loss negated yet another huge night for Davis, who caught 13 passes for 170 yards despite all sorts of attention from the Bearcat secondary. Gabriel finished with 297 passing yards, but the home roster had three sacks, eight tackles for loss, six pass breakups and five quarterback hurries. Veteran linebacker Nate Evans keynoted the Knights with his 17 tackles.
"Everybody in here has worked their butts off," said Heupel in the aftermath.
"You competed your butts off tonight. And you played to the end.
"Did we play perfect? No. It will always be us together forever. Coaches, players, offense, defense, special teams. It has to be us together. It's how we go forward. It's what led us to victory in the past. It's what will lead us to victory in the future.
"That's it. Everybody disappointed in this one? Yes. Are there a lot of good things you did in this one? Yes. But it was not good enough in any area. It's real. We all take ownership of it.
"We've got to stick together, get a little bit better and go win the next one. There's only one way to change it--keep coming together and working hard. Everybody.
"This 60-minute clock we were not good enough tonight. That's the reality."
Next comes an open date. The Knights will have an extra week to assess their setting.
For now, UCF (4-2 overall, 1-1 AAC) is chasing the Bearcats (4-1, 1-0 AAC) in its own division of the league it dominated in all of 2017 and 2018.
Yes, uneasy rests that crown.