The Party Ends Early for UCF

The party ended for UCF’s Not Ready for Prime Time Players when they were flagged for delay of game on their very first drive Saturday night. There they were, a yard away from a first down on the Florida 44 and Coach George O’Leary was going for it on fourth down. UCF fans were dancing, thinking upset city, but then came the flag and all the air in their balloon was sucked right out of The Swamp.

They had started at their own five after fumbling the opening kickoff out of bounds and they had moved the ball into Florida territory thanks to a couple of snazzy third down passes that picked up big yards against a Gator defense that still hadn’t settled down. Now it was fourth down and the Golden Knight faithful were on their feet, ready to turn the party into Mardi Gras.

Fourth and one and O’Leary is Gambling George, the people’s champion, ready to stand up for all every directional school in the country that has to hit the road to play college football’s bullies for balance the budget paychecks. One more yard and the dream lives on. One yard. One measly, stinking yard and UCF goes bonkers. But then came that yellow flag and instead of popping the corks, reality set in.

Fourth and six and O’Leary does what any sane coach does. He punts the football and in this case he immediately began praying that somehow, someway on this night that the Florida Gators are in one of those shoot themselves in the foot kind of moods. Fourth and six and he’s holding his breath, wondering how many plays after the change of possession before the Gators with their arsenal of high tech weapons figures out his defense is armed with French rifles bought on E-Bay, dropped just once and never fired.

Deep down, you have to know that the UCF faithful knew the party was over. In their hearts they should have known it the moment Aaron Horne punted the ball and if they didn’t know it then, they knew it five plays later when freshman Percy Harvin turned a little dump off pass from Chris Leak into a 58-yard sprint down the sideline. With 6:54 left in the first quarter, it was 7-0 Florida and for all practical purposes, this one was over.

Even though the Gators were indeed in one of those shoot themselves in the foot kind of moods — try four turnovers, a couple of huge penalties that called back big gainers, and a several dropped passes — it really didn’t matter. Florida was just better in just about every phase of the game. About the only thing UCF could hang its hat on was punter Aaron Horne whose towering punts allowed the punt team gunners to race down the field like missiles and make life miserable for Reggie Nelson, who only called one fair catch.

Other than that, the Knights had very little to show for their big paycheck. The final score was 42-0 but the bigger deficit was the talent gap. Florida’s kick sand in your face bullies on the first team are light years ahead of UCF. Most of Florida’s twos would start for the Golden Knights and you could probably say it’s even-steven with the threes.

By the time the first half had come to a merciful end, the Gators already had more yards (398) than they had in the entire game the week before against Southern Miss (391) and they had the same number of points (34). After that first drive when the Golden Knights marched 56 yards, they managed 15 the rest of the half. In the second quarter, Florida outgained UCF 274-1 and outscored the Golden Knights 27-0.

That the Gators scored only eight points in the second half was of little significance. Coach Urban Meyer emptied the bench halfway through the third quarter and let his backups and freshmen finish things off. The final numbers were on offense were 637 yards, the best total ever by the Gators in the Urban Meyer era with 204 on the ground and 433 through the air. The Gators ran it 36 times and threw it 38.

Defensively, Florida’s backups bent a little bit in the second half, but they didn’t allow the Golden Knights in the end zone. In registering the first shutout by a Florida defense since a 52-0 win over Mississippi State in 2001, the Gators gave up only 21 rushing yards and 132 through the air.

The Gators dominated the game, that’s for sure, and it can’t hurt that so many youngsters got into the game for extended minutes. Meyer has to be happy with the way the Gators spread the ball out among the receivers. After last week when Leak and Dallas Baker hooked up nine times, there was much better balance in the passing game.

Eleven Gators caught at least one pass with Harvin (four for 99 yards, one touchdown), Baker (four for 81 yards, one touchdown) and Bubba Caldwell (four for 51 yards, two touchdowns) leading the way.

The Gators got 18 carries and 90 yards (two touchdowns) out of the tailback position with DeShawn Wynn leading the way with 51 yards on nine carries for one score. Those aren’t dominating tailback rushing totals, but the running game was impressive with the way the ball was spread around. Freshman quarterback Tim Tebow carried nine times for a game-high 62 yards while Leak gained 16 on four carries. The Gators also got 39 yards on five attempts from Harvin (two for 11) and freshman Jarred Fayson (three for 28).

The defense didn’t force a single UCF turnover, but the Golden Knights managed just 11 first downs and gained only 2.6 yards per play. With Marcus Thomas and Steven Harris back in the rotation at defensive tackle, the Gators were much better against the run and got far more pressure on the quarterback than they did against Southern Miss last week.

Impressive? Yes it was, and it’s a win that had a lot of positives and should be celebrated, but now that the celebration is over and it’s the morning after, it’s time to put things in proper perspective.

First of all, it was UCF the Gators were playing. While the Knights did indeed go to a bowl game last year and they did indeed make it to the Conference USA championship game, they aren’t exactly ready for the prime time of the Southeastern Conference. They might be really hot stuff in Conference USA but in the SEC they would probably settle in among the bottom feeders.

Considering what they did last year when they turned things around after that 0-11 disaster in O’Leary’s first year on the job, everybody expected a far more formidable effort from the Golden Knights against the Gators. The fact that they were basic no-shows after the opening drive is either a testament that the Gators are on track for a big second year under Meyer or else that UCF still has a long, long way to go before it’s ready to go elbow to elbow with the big boys.

The answer is probably somewhere in between. Florida probably isn’t quite that good — at least yet — and UCF probably isn’t quite that bad. At least UCF doesn’t have to play another SEC team the rest of the way.

The Gators will get a truer test of their progress next Saturday night in Knoxville when the real games begin. This one already has the feel of one of those seems like old time games. Last year’s aberration aside, Tennessee should be more like the Tennessee teams of old when the Gators pay a visit to Neyland Stadium next week and the Gators should be a bit more like the Stevie Wonder Gators of the 90s.

The tough part for the Gators this week will be making sure the young players aren’t full of themselves after starting out the season with two wins over Conference USA opponents. Outscoring two teams 76-7 and averaging 514 yards of offense while giving up only 265 a game sounds real good but again, consider who it is Florida played. This week Meyer has to allow the Gators to grow in confidence from the way they have played the first two games while keeping their feet firmly on the ground and letting them know that (1) it’s still early in the season and (2) it’s time to ratchet things up a notch.

For Florida, it’s time to put a new game face on and get ready for a real challenge. The Gators ended the party early for UCF. Now they get to see if they can end another party, this one with 107,000 or so watching at Neyland Stadium next Saturday night. The fact the Gators pooped UCF’s party won’t raise all that many eyebrows. If they poop the party in Knoxville, then we can know for sure that the Florida Gators, Version II, Urban-Style are on their way to the bigger and better things in life.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.