ORLANDO — The signs of UCF’s Big 12 ascendance were everywhere Saturday in the Knights’ first major-conference home game against Baylor.
Outside FBC Mortgage Stadium, where famed DJ Pauly D had a mob of fans bouncing before the Bounce House gates even opened. On the video board, where the Knights told fans “a new era is upon us” and players pointed to the Big 12 patches on their uniforms. Even on the field, where the marching band spelled out the conference logo at the end of their halftime show.
The biggest sign, though, was the incomprehensible second half of UCF’s 36-35 defeat to the Bears. The Knights allowed 29 unanswered points in the final 18:20 to turn a historic moment into a historic collapse — the largest comeback win in Baylor history and the largest blown lead UCF has ever had.
“This was a big moment,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “We didn’t seize the moment.”
They didn’t seize the moment because, in some ways, they weren’t ready for it. As much as UCF (3-2, 0-2 Big 12) has enjoyed its rise to the Power Five, it must now suffer through the growing pains that come with being in the Power Five.
That’s the easiest explanation for the unfathomable failure that took place in front of a soldout crowd of 44,005. UCF’s top talent and skill players are good enough to hang with most big-league teams. The Knights showed that last week in a respectable 44-31 loss at reigning conference champion Kansas State, and they affirmed it Saturday.
Running back Johnny Richardson took a handoff on UCF’s first offensive snap and raced 79 untouched yards down the left sideline for a touchdown.
The play took 12 seconds. Of course it did.
The timing wasn’t the only fitting part of the score. Richardson is undersized (5-foot-7, 170 pounds) and went overlooked by the state’s major programs out of Lake Wales as the nation’s No. 1,448 recruit. But he is blazing fast and entered the weekend among the Big 12′s leading rushers. He’s the type of under-the-radar player that fueled UCF’s rise to a major conference.
But getting to a power league is one thing. Winning once you get there is another.
The Knights aren’t there yet. And they probably shouldn’t be.
Malzahn said UCF lost a few linemen due to injuries in the second half, and the Knights had trouble pressuring Baylor quarterback Blake Shapen, too. Those two factors are related. Malzahn didn’t say it directly, but there’s an obvious message between the lines of his comments.
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UCF doesn’t have enough depth yet.
That’s reflected in 247Sports’ talent composite, which tries to quantify a program’s overall recruiting success. Baylor is No. 46. UCF is 53rd. The programs have about the same number of blue-chip recruits (11 for the Bears, 10 for the Knights), but the Bears have 13 more three-star recruits. Eventually, those extra years of power-conference recruiting successes show up.
Like at quarterback. Baylor (2-3, 1-1) had a close battle for its starting job last offseason; Shapen won it, leading Gerry Bohanon to transfer to USF. Bohanon won the Bulls’ job, leading Timmy McClain to transfer to … UCF.
Shapen showed the resolve of a Big 12 champion, completing 21 of his 34 passes for 293 yards, one touchdown and no interception. McClain played like a project, completing barely half his passes for two touchdowns and an interception in field-goal range that led to a Bears touchdown.
Or along the lines. Baylor pressured McClain consistently in the second half. Most of the time he escaped it — like when he got the ball at the 25 and scrambled 3 yards into his own end zone before eventually converting. But he was also forced into mistakes, missing on 6 of his 11 passes in the fourth quarter. Shapen, meanwhile, had enough time to dissect a weakened defense that missed too many tackles.
Or special teams. Baylor blocked a 32-yard field goal in the second quarter. UCF shanked a 19-yard punt in the fourth and missed what would have been the game-winning 59-yard field goal on the last play.
“To make it really simple: We did the things to lose the game, they did the things to win the game,” Malzahn said.
There are other obvious explanations. Alec Holler said he should have fallen on a fourth-quarter fumble instead of trying to pick it up. Rather than facing a fourth down in field-goal range, Holler inadvertently knocked the ball to Caden Jenkins, who returned it 72 yards for a touchdown that cut UCF’s lead to 35-33. It was one of many costly technical errors. The crowd emptied quickly, too, draining the energy for a monumental game.
But the biggest takeaway from UCF’s disastrous second half is also the bitterest. On a momentous day where the Knights finally, formally arrived as a Power Five program, they learned that competing in a major conference isn’t the same as contending in a major conference.
And on Saturday, that difference turned a historic day into a historic collapse and the most painful loss in program history.
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