PHILADELPHIA — For the past few weeks, the UCF Knights have been enveloped in a cacophony of specific, nearly incessant questions:
WHY DOES THIS OFFENSE TURN SLUGGISH IN THE SECOND HALF?
WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE WHEN YOU’RE ON THE ROAD?
HOW CAN YOU RUN THE BALL MORE EFFICIENTLY?
Those concerns, much like the Temple Owls defense, were shredded Saturday night. All the Knights could hear in the closing moments of a 63-21 demolition were the jubilant screams of their faithful who had taken over Lincoln Financial Field.
“It felt like a home game in some ways,” head coach Josh Heupel said.
A good amount of those travelers came to see Otis Anderson. Family members from New York, New Jersey and Maryland — people he hadn’t seen in more than seven years — arrived to root on UCF’s jack of all trades.
“I kind of had something to play for,” Anderson said about his personal cheering section.
The junior utility player put on a memerable show and turned in his best statistical performance as a Knight, rushing for a career-high 205 yards on just 17 carries.
Before halftime, however, his most impactful play was something he’d rather forget.
UCF’s defense had just forced a three-and-out. But Anderson then fumbled away the ensuing punt, setting Temple up in the Knights’ red zone. That turnover was turned into a touchdown eight plays later to cut the UCF lead to 28-21 heading into the half.
“[The defense] worked so hard to get them in three-and-out. Me muffing the punt, knowing they had to go back on the field, that kind of hurt me because they were so tired from putting in the effort,” Anderson said. “I just had to come into the locker room, look myself in the mirror and just know there were more plays to be made.”
Heupel let his star utility player work through the mistake on his own, for he knew Anderson would respond.
“I pretty much left him alone,” Heupel said. “Next series, you’re going to let him go play ball, man.”
Anderson and the Knights came out of the break playing like a team with something to prove. Considering that they had been outscored after halftime this season, they kind of did.
This was when UCF had previously faltered on the road and when the offense had typically gone dormant. But Anderson and sophomore running back Bentavious Thompson put the offense on their backs in the second half, picking up chunk gain after chuck gain.
12 yards. 34 yards. 37 yards. 15 yards. 37 yards again. 13 yards.
UCF punished the Owls’ defensive front time and time again. And as their hurry-up offense operated like a tremendous machine up and down the field, Anderson looked across the line of scrimmage; he could see that the Knights had broken Temple’s will.
“I see it when they get into their stances,” Anderson said. “They huff and puff and they’re slow to get their calls in, they’re slow to fill their gaps.
“I knew that we had them.”
Anderson and Thompson gained 292 of the team’s 385 rushing yards, the program’s most since putting up 390 yards last year at South Florida. It was the most ground yards Temple had allowed since its 2017 season-opener against Notre Dame.
It was a remarkable effort made even more so by the fact that the Knights went through most of the contest without their top two running backs. Greg McCrae was on the sidelines resting a right knee that was injured last week while Adrian Killins Jr. spent the second half with his left arm in a sling after taking a hard landing in the second quarter.
“Honestly, I think if Greg coud have jumped up and down, he probably would have,” Anderson joked. “I think he was more happy for us than we were for ourselves.”
The Knights outscored the Owls 28-0 and outgained them 208-12 in the third quarter, so there was obviously more than just fast, irresistable offense at work. The defense was “suffocating,” per Heupel.
Defensive back Aaron Robinson received two “game balls” during the team’s postgame celebration — one for each of his two third-quarter interceptions. He said the defense was cognizant of how they had gotten beat for more than 200 yards and some game-changing plays in the second half of each of UCF’s two road losses. They were determined to not have that happen a third time.
“I felt like we had a chip on our shoulder coming out on another road game,” Robinson said. “We definitely had that in our minds to just finish in all four quarters, all phases.
“I just feel like the performance we had is a great example of what we can do in the second half of games.”
This was UCF’s best performance of 2019. Even Heupel opined that this was “probably” the team’s high-water mark in all three phases this year, which counts as a ringing endorsement.
The second-half lulls, the away-game failures, the stuffed-up running plays — they were all exorcised in this resounding blowout. It was a statement victory that kept the Knights alive in the AAC East race while putting Temple’s chances down for a long dirt nap.
Anderson agreed that a statement was made Saturday night: “This is the same team. We’re the same team from the past two years.”
That’s debatable. There are still issues (PENALTIES!) that need to be cleaned up (PENALTIES!!) if the Knights want to run the table from here. And they will likely have to do thaif they want any shot at making the American Athletic Conference title game for a third consecutive year.
But for one night, it did feel like 2017. The Knights were unstoppable and immovable.
Their recent losses have thrown another question into the mix for pundits to kick around: Is UCF football’s run over? Considering how UCF ran over Temple, that’s probably another query we can discard right now. The Knights may not repeat their monumental championship wins of 2017 and 2018, but this 2019 game was quite possibly the best we’ve seen from them during this magical three-season stretch.