Yet again, UCF comes up short against quality opponent
ORLANDO, Fla. -- It might never have been a member of the Big East, but UCF is still the Big Tease.
Sure, there was a first half Saturday that included a remarkably efficient touchdown drive, a knockout hit on South Carolina's starting quarterback and a guffaw-inducing 13-yard punt return by 302-pound defensive lineman E.J. Dunston.
The fourth quarter saw Blake Bortles complete passes of 73 and 79 yards to bring the Knights back to life after a combination of rain and an 18-point deficit had driven many in the crowd of 47,605 to drier confines.
But in between, there were too many mistakes and too many reminders of past games that were supposed to put the program on the national map.
So while coach George O'Leary might have been channeling his inner Gregg Popovich at times during his press briefing following a 28-25 loss to the 12th-ranked and undefeated Gamecocks, it was clear the outcome was gnawing at him more than usual.
"I'm 67 years old. I want to wake up tomorrow," he said, dismissing with a wry grin the notion that he would be just as unaffected by another loss to a Southeastern Conference team as he was by the Knights' victory at Penn State two weeks earlier.
Despite leading 10-0 at halftime, UCF saw its all-time record against the SEC fall to 2-15. One of those wins came at Alabama, as incomprehensible as that might be to fathom. Then again, this was when Mike DuBose was running the show in Tuscaloosa and about to be run out of town when the Crimson Tide went 3-8 in the 2000 season.
"It wasn't like we were going out there just to play our best," said linebacker Terrance Plummer, whose jarring hit on Connor Shaw in the first quarter caused a fumble and sent the South Carolina quarterback to the sidelines with a sprained right shoulder. "We were coming out to win this game. And we didn't win."
The Gamecocks hadn't been shut out in the first half since the 2010 Papa John's Bowl against Connecticut, a game Steve Spurrier described afterward as "a sad, sad effort." Apparently the Ol' Ball Coach didn't have to question his team's mental state in similar terms in the locker room.
And to hear O'Leary say it, no adjustments were required on their part for Mike Davis to break loose on a momentum-changing 53-yard touchdown run barely a minute into the third quarter.
"They didn't do anything special," he said. "We covered the play at least a dozen, 15 times in practice. They blocked us well, and we didn't get off blocks on that play."
UCF's breakdowns became so contagious that they even impacted Bortles. Normally a model of efficiency, the Knights' junior quarterback coughed up the ball for a turnover that led to Davis' third touchdown, and he also underthrew an open Jeff Godfrey on a pass that was intercepted by Gamecock linebacker T.J. Holloman.
During one stretch, Bortles' best move was a touchdown-saving tackle on an ill-advised throw by Godfrey that seemingly hung in the air forever off a lateral before being pilfered by cornerback Jimmy Legree.
O'Leary didn't hesitate to take the hit for that turnover, one of four committed by the Knights.
"I'll probably bite my teeth on that one," he said. "I would say, 'Yeah, I wish I could make another call on that one.' Blame me on that one."
UCF hardly owned a monopoly on egregious blunders. Even after Bortles teamed up with Rannell Hall for the first of two scores, the Gamecocks had a first-and-goal at the 3 with the Knights already having used up their allotment of timeouts. But Davis fumbled the ball away with 3:18 to go, and when a Bortles-to-Breshad Perriman crossing pattern turned into a huge gain, it became a contest again.
In the end, however, UCF came away empty in its search for a second victory over a ranked team. And it's not as if the Knights' victory over Houston in 2009 was ever regarded as an earth-shattering event.
"It's going to be hard to let it go after 24 hours," Bortles said. "But that's what you have to do. You live and learn from your mistakes and try not to make the same ones twice."
Less than three weeks from now, the Knights will hit the road to face Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville in what could well be a battle for American Athletic Conference supremacy. If the past is any indication, they will again tantalize their followers before finding a way to let a win slip away.
Against quality opponents, UCF still stands for "U Can't Finish."
You can follow Ken Hornack on Twitter @HornackFSFla or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.