UCF: Unbelievably Crazy Finish
If you weren't at the Citrus Bowl for USF's 24-17 thriller over rival Central Florida on Saturday, there's so much you missed. With many televised games, you're getting most of the story as you watch, but with no TV and no access to postgame interviews, fans who weren't there missed a lot.
Take the scene after USF's win. Jim Leavitt goes out to midfield, shakes hands with George O'Leary, then sprints -- literally sprints -- to the corner of the stadium where USF's fans were celebrating. Both hands high, fingers extended for the Bulls sign, pumping his fists, running back and forth in front of that section, as emotional as I've seen him after a game. Check the post below for a great Chris Zuppa photo that captures it very well.
In his postgame comments, Leavitt explained much of his emotion came from anger at a column written Friday by the Orlando Sentinel's Mike Bianchi, who has taken some shots at USF in the past but never quite to this level. You can read it here, but among other things, it called USF "Leavitt's renegade program" and "an embarrassment" and "a rehabilitation clinic and halfway house for dregs and druggies." If that didn't get Leavitt going, maybe it was the last line: "A victory for USF is sickening affirmation for all that is wrong with college football."
So before he mentioned anything about the game, here's how Leavitt opened the postgame comments, verbatim:
"I’m obviously proud of our players. Our players have got great character. Sometimes they take a lot of hits, which is unfair. It’s not right. But I guess that’s life. I wish the truth would always be told about our players, because they’re a great group of guys. I’m tired of people trying to attack our guys. I love them so much. They’ve got great character. They’re good people. I’m proud of them, proud to be a part of their lives. I’m disappointed in some things I read Thursday out of the Orlando paper, and our guys took offense to it. We’re not a bunch of renegades. It’s not us. It’s not anything about us. And I promise you that helped us. Those comments helped us. And they really fired our guys up, because our team knows who they are. And nobody thought we’d have much of a shot today, and you know it. I’m proud of our team."
Ironic thing, of course, was that UCF had to suspend one of its top players, running back Kevin Smith, for a violation of team rules. Leavitt, who has had major issues with the media for much of the past month, was incensed with Friday's column -- it was clear defending his team's reputation was more important than discussing an important victory, which is impressive in and of itself. A little more than the standard us-vs.-the-world motivational talk.
"When you get attacked," he said, "you really close your ranks, you look at each other and love each other."
Later: "The way this program has been attacked and ripped has been disappointing, and unfairly. So it kind of was emotional for me. I just wish people would be honest and truthful, that's all. When things start getting personal, start getting out of whack, they're not honest and not objective, I get real disappointed. It's wrong. It's absolutely wrong, but you can't control what some people in the media write, because I don't have the last ink. I'm not the guy that writes. You just have to keep your mouth shut and go out and work, and that's the thing that's hard."
On a personal level, Leavitt doesn't like his parents in St. Petersburg reading negative things about his program: "My family has to read things like that. Your mom and dad. "Why do they write things like that?' Mom, don't worry about it. It's OK. That's the way it is. They know the truth."
OK. Enough on that. Here's 10 observations slow-cooked on the ride home on I-4 ...
1. What Matt Grothe has done in three games is nothing short of phenomenal. To pass for 302 yards in a game is one thing, but to do so while rushing 21 times -- 21! -- is just wild. Andre Hall had 21 or fewer carries in six games last year. Engineering a 90-yard game-winning touchdown drive on the road after a blocked punt is returned for a touchdown against you isn't something most kids do in their second start. On that drive, Grothe completed his first three passes, ran 26 and 13 yards for first downs, then after a sack and incompletion, hits Ean Randolph for a 27-yard touchdown.
That said, I don't think it's in USF's best longterm interests to run a dozen QB draws a game. If Grothe's so valuable as to generate 86 percent of your offensive yards as he did Saturday, why put him in position to take 10 more tackles than he needs to?
2. Strange as it seems, you have to give Rod Smith credit for some creative and effective offensive playcalling. Two reverses to Amarri Jackson were flagged for not having seven players on the line, and he still was gutsy enough to call a great trick play that put USF within a yard of a 17-10 lead.
I'll describe it best I can. Grothe hands off a reverse to Ean Randolph, who streaks right and flips it to Amarri Jackson. The play calls for Jackson to pass down the left sideline to a streaking Grothe, but UCF's safety catches on and covers Grothe. Jackson has the sense to go to his second read, which is receiver Amp Hill, wide open in the middle, catching a slightly underthrown pass on the 1. Here's Amarri on the play:
"A good play by Amp, and great blocking by the offensive line. The obvious read, there's a guy in gold all over your quarterback. Ninety-five percent of the time, the play is made to throw to the quarterback, five percent to the receiver. You never really want to throw to the receiver. The guy in gold over there, it's a blessing from God that I see Amp wide-open."
3. I think Leavitt did Mike Benzer a nice favor by calling a time out with two seconds left in the third quarter, down 10-7 and lining up for a 30-yard field goal. This put Benzer in the end of the field full of Bulls fans, instead of the opposite end zone, the loudest section of UCF fans. Tough decision to burn a time out in the third quarter of a game you're trailing, but it worked out well.
Benzer not only gets his first field goal in his hometown, but it sounds like he's a good friend to freshman punter Delbert Alvarado, who fumbled a snap and had a desperation punt blocked and returned for a touchdown. "I can't imagine if I'd missed a game-winning field goal how I'd feel, so I can imagine how he felt, especially until the end of that game."
It's one thing to tell a freshman to keep his head up; it's another to literally keep his head up. "It was after I grabbed his facemask a little," Benzer said. "He just has to shake it off. He'll be all right."
4. Justin Teachey must be liking the new 1-inch tees. They were supposed to make his job on kickoffs harder. Last week, three touchbacks and one brought out to the 22. Saturday? Three touchbacks, one returned to the 20 and one returned to the 19. So in two wins, in nine kickoffs, the best field position he's set an opponent up with is the 22. I'll point out that USF started three drives inside its own 10, so field position went both ways.
5. Even though he had 12 catches for 133 yards, I think UCF could have gone to receiver Mike Walker much more Saturday. Played taller than 6-foot-2. Not sure I heard cornerback Joe Burnett's name once, but one Knights player who stood out to me was defensive lineman Leger Douzable, an Alonso grad, who had four tackles for loss, including two sacks.
6. USF's offensive line is still very much a work in progress. Another new combination against UCF, with Matt Huners starting at left tackle and no Thed Watson for the second game in a row. Another new wrinkle: Ryan Schmidt, the transfer from Kansas State, played much of the second half at guard, on both sides of center Nick Capogna, and seemed to hold his own. That's nine guys who have gotten significant snaps on the o-line in the first three games.
7. How beat up with USF's defensive line? "We had so many guys injured inside," tackle Richard Clebert told me on the field after the game. "Me, Allen (Cray), Saiosi (Uhatafe). Coaches kept telling us we had to battle. We all played at like 30 percent. My groin is horrible, Allan's groin is horrible. We knew all week it was going to be a team effort."
I think if you're to the point where you're willing to say -- for a blog you know will be read by dozens of dozens of readers -- that your groin is horrible, you're in a bad place. I'll stop complaining about being tired now and be thankful my groin ... isn't horrible.
8. Not sure what to make of next week's Kansas game. Nearly irrelevant, compared to this week's UCF rivalry game and the week after's Big East opener on Friday against Rutgers. Does that make it a trap game? KU has a freshman quarterback, Kerry Meier, who threw four picks and had a fumble in Friday's double overtime loss to Toledo. (To be fair, he also threw for 243 yards and 2 TDs). I think Steven Moffett's poise as a veteran passer was huge in keeping UCF in the game, so this USF defense might be able to do well against a freshman. Help me out here: Kansas' bio page for him says SuperPrep ranked him as the 13th best QB in the nation as a high school senior. Really? His stats as a prep senior: Hit less than half his passes for 930 yards and nine TDs, rushed for 634 yards. Scout.com had him as the No. 45 QB nationally -- still not that bad -- and honestly writes "In Meier’s defense, he had over 200 negative yards due to sacks." Oh, well then.
9. I think senior safety Jeremy Burnett has quietly emerged as one of the toughest hitters on the defense. Seems like he's had at least one de-cleater each week, and Saturday, he led the Bulls with nine tackles, including seven unassisted. Not bad, considering he totaled 12 in his first two seasons at USF. Was also impressed by how often Ryan Gilliam was in at corner on key downs. Rotating defensive players more than in the past probably has a lot to do with USF outlasting opponents and dominating in the second half. For the season, they've outscored opponents 65-7 after halftime.
10. Really impressed with the crowd Saturday, listed as 46,708, even more than was announced at Raymond James Stadium. Beautiful weather helped the game-day walk-up, and I think it's safe to say a lot of Bulls fans went the normal TicketMaster route; there was more green-and-gold there than the 3,500 sold through USF. Aside from the general annoyance that comes with "Thundersticks," seemed like the UCF side of things behaved just fine.
11. I'm an insanely forgetful guy, but I don't want to forget to thank two kind people this week. Last Saturday, idiot that I am, I left my binoculars in the press box at Ray-Jay. Tribune correspondent Gregg Becnel was kind enough to notice, pick 'em up, e-mail me about them and bring them to me at practice Monday night. Well beyond the call of duty. And then Friday morning, I'm interviewing Leavitt outside the football suite at USF's athletic facility, and my backup recorder (a trusty digital Olympus VN-240PC) must have fallen out of my pants as I was sitting down. Anyway, an assistant coach -- I won't name him because technically I can't have talked to him -- calls me up and asks me if I'm missing a recorder. Day before a game and he's calling me! That recorder means a lot because I've got old sound bites of my kids on there, back when my son's just learning the alphabet, from the first time we heard my daughter's heartbeat on a sonogram. So I lose that recorder, I'm losing a lot more than just Leavitt saying "I'm unsure" and "We good?" so on. I just want to make it clear that for all the negativity that's written about between coaches and media and between the papers, etc., there are some really great people you run into, and their actions don't go unnoticed. Thanks again.
OK. The whole numbering-to-10 thing isn't keeping these any shorter. The Unabomber actually wrote me last week and told me I need to work on being more concise in my thoughts. Are Unabomber references too old to work now? Well, it's 1:55 and I'm off to my cabin in the woods ... As always, questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, or just post here and I'll answer them as I can. If anybody has restaurant recommendations for Kansas City on Friday, I'm listening. My dad's telling me I have to hit Hayward's, so that's the early leader.