PITTSBURGH — “This is big.”
A UCF slogan echoed through my brain as the UCF Knights’ 25-game winning streak in the regular season was snapped by the Pittsburgh Panthers inside of Heinz Field on Saturday night.
But while striving to achieve some sort of elaborate, poetic method to describe the one-point loss, a more rational thought appeared: This isn’t that big. Yes, it was stunning to witness the Knights drop a game they were widely expected to win simply because that hasn’t happened in a very long time.
But you know who else loses in college football? Everyone, save for maybe Clemson or Alabama right now. The Ls are handed out every Saturday to half of the participants. This Saturday, at long last, it was UCF’s time to wear it.
Here’s @LukeSarrisSBN’s instant reaction to the 35-34 #UCF loss to Pitt.— Black & Gold Banneret (@UCF_Banneret) September 22, 2019
P.S. We have been told he wrote this while crying in his hotel room in Pittsburgh. https://t.co/wVLgTysgoY
So, purple prose isn’t appropriate. Don’t look for any knee-jerk hot takes here. This isn’t the fall of Rome. This isn’t a Shakespearean tragedy.
It’s sports. It was a football game that UCF lost and, frankly, deserved to lose. Let me count the ways.
1. When have you ever seen this offense stuck in neutral at the beginning of a game? Not for a while, certainly. The Knights were shut out in the opening quarter for the first time since their game at East Carolina last October. That was the game in which McKenzie Milton was a late scratch, and Darriel Mack Jr. was thrust into his first career start. The Panthers set the tone by strong-arminging UCF on both sides of the line of scrimmage. That would become a theme.
2. The offensive line looked overwhelmed in particular. Pitt’s strength on defense is its front four, and they won consistently against an O-line that had permitted just one sack through three games. The Panthers tallied six sacks in those 60 minutes.
3. Dillon Gabriel showed his age. A couple of those sacks were on him as he had poor pocket awareness and held on to the ball too long. He still completed a bunch of deep throws that pumped up his overall numbers (338 yards on 25 of 42 passing), but the Pitt defense confounded him at times with their pressure and coverage schemes.
Missed #KnightShift last night?— Black & Gold Banneret (@UCF_Banneret) September 22, 2019
That’s OK. We got you. @Jeff_Sharon, @JeremyBrener, and @EricLopezELO break down key plays and moments from #UCF vs. Pitt, and look ahead to what @UCF_Football really needs to focus on going forward. https://t.co/1Fz6V2nLKc
4. The Knights’ defense couldn’t stop what they knew was coming. The Panthers’ passing game consists largely of screens and crossing routes, and they didn’t go away from that. UCF just lost too many open receivers over the middle of the field. And honestly, Pitt could have won this thing by double digits if not for QB Kenny Pickett missing a bunch of open throws after the first quarter. Those unforced errors halted drives and helped the Knights get back into the contest.
5. No team in the American Athletic Conference has been called for more penalties or subject to more penalty yardage than UCF. And that lack of discipline appeared throughout the second half. The Knights were called for three personal fouls in the span of four plays during the drive in which Pitt would cut UCF’s lead to 31-28. But no penalty carried more weight than defensive lineman Brandon WIlson jumping offsides before a fourth-and-5 play at the UCF 35 with about 2 minutes remaining. Stay onsides and get a stop there, and UCF likely escapes with their winning streak intact.
6. Third-down conversions. The Knights were one of the sport’s best in this department last year at 50.3 percent. They haven’t been as successful in 2019 as their conversion rate entering Saturday was 42.9 percent. On Saturday: 4 for 16, 25 percent. Woof.
I'm going to post nearly all of Otis Anderson's postgame presser over two tweets. He was very candid.— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) September 22, 2019
"We're pissed. We're supposed to be; you're not supposed to be happy after a loss." #UCF pic.twitter.com/0gsr6QqGXM
Otis said that it was "shocking" to see how the #UCF offense couldn't get going at the start of the game. He also talked about the pressure to remain perfect. pic.twitter.com/u24O7wjX7n— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) September 22, 2019
7. The Knights fell short of 100 rushing yards for the first time since the Cure Bowl loss in 2016. But even after you subtract the sack yardage, UCF still gained only 121 yards on 28 carries. That is far below the norm. The inability to run the ball effectively is probably the biggest reason why the offense didn’t perform like usual Saturday. Again, a lot of the blame falls upon the O-line. However, that group doesn’t get all of the blame. ...
8. The playcalling lacked any creativity. Most of the plays were either deep shots to receivers in single coverage or inside handoffs. Pitt chose to focus on the running game, and the Knights really had no response for their stacked boxes beyond a 36-yard run by Adrian Killins Jr. in the first quarter.
For the most part, the Panthers put eight defenders between the tackles and pretty much shut down the Knights’ strength on offense.
So, knowing how Pitt was attacking the line of scrimmage, why simply hand the ball off to Greg McCrae on fourth and 2 when you’re in field goal range and leading by three in the final quarter? I asked head coach Josh Heupel about that decision, which he took credit for:
“Just situationally, felt like that was the best way to play it for our football team,” he said.
OK. To be clear, I don’t have a huge problem with going for it there; you would expect this offense to pick up 2 yards on any play, even on its worst day. But why another inside handoff against a defense that you know was going all-out to stop the run? At that late stage of the game, that call is kind of the definition of insanity.
Why no attempts to get Dillon Gabriel on the move as a runner? How do Killins and Otis Anderson go the full game without a reception? Not even a thought about using Bentavious Thompson? Don’t you need to get more receivers involved instead of leaning almost solely on Gabriel Davis and Tre Nixon? So much left to be desired.
9. And in the end, after all of their mistakes and relative ineffectiveness, the Knights lost on a trick play. “The Philly Special,” no less. Oh, wait ...
Narduzzi confirms that the game-winning play-call was the "Pitt Special."— Christian Bruey (@CBrueyWFTV) September 21, 2019
So, what did we learn about UCF on Saturday? Well, basically, we learned that they are just like most every other team: vulnerable.
The timing is obviously wretched from a national narrative standpoint. Not that there is a particularly good time to lose, but the days leading up to this game were filled with popular columnists and talking heads praising UCF, telling everyone just how good they are, how they needed more respect in the polls, why they should be considered for the College Football Playoff, etc.
So much for that. Now the knives are out from fanbases across the sport who have wanted to see UCF fail ever since Danny White’s “National champs!” soundbite. This would be a good week for UCF Twitter to lie low. Don’t feed the trolls.
The players, to their credit, were very open about how Saturday’s loss impacted them emotionally:
Otis Anderson: “Words can’t explain. I grew up a sore loser; I don’t like losing. ... We’re pissed.”
Linebacker Eric Mitchell: “To be honest, it feels heartbreaking. ... It hurt. And I know it hurt all my guys.”
Gabriel Davis: “It does suck to see us go down and lose. But it takes things like that, to get knocked in the head a little bit, to know that, hey, we ain’t perfect, and we’ve got to go out there and work every single day.”
Davis said he is most looking forward to seeing how the Knights respond to this adversity. Fortunately for them, they have the ultimate get-right game next on their schedule: A home date versus UConn. And also fortunately, the Knights’ loftiest yet attainable preseason goal — another New Year’s Day Six bowl appearance — is still very much on the table. The fans will need to start rooting against the likes of Boise State and Army.
UCF Football lost on Saturday night. It was unexpected and strange. But it was a loss, ultimately no different from what half of college football teams experienced as well.
It is not the end of the world. It is not a tragedy. But maybe a small dose of Shakespeare is warranted at this time:
“Great lords, wise men ne’er sit and wail their loss,
But cheerly seek how to redress their harms.”
This will not define the 2019 season.— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) September 21, 2019
We will #ChargeOn. pic.twitter.com/wN37ass6St