As USF football surges forward, winless UCF hobbles toward finish line

USF coach Willie Taggart said his players aren’t overlooking rival UCF despite its winless record through 11 games. ORACLE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

In August, the University of Central Florida’s marketing department strategically placed a digital billboard along the stretch of I-275 near Westshore Plaza that highlighted all of its football program’s recent accomplishments.

There was coach George O’Leary hoisting the Fiesta Bowl trophy from the Knights’ bowl victory over Baylor in January 2014. On each side of O’Leary were two locker room photos of players celebrating back-to-back AAC championships.

In big, bold letters to the left of the pictures was a three word phrase: “Meanwhile in Orlando.”

Nearly four months later, the billboard is long gone. So too are the good vibes surrounding a team that never seemed like it would depart from the mountaintop of college football. 

The once-proud program has been replaced by a smoldering crater with no wins through 11 games and an even hazier vision for the future. 

The 69-year-old O’Leary is gone after nearly 11 years at the helm, stepping down after the Knights started the season 0-8. The few supporters who have continued to show up to Bright House Networks Stadium have replaced their black-and-gold team garb with brown grocery bags.

Meanwhile in Tampa, things are quite rosy.

After four straight forgettable seasons, two head coaches and a carousel of assistants, the Bulls are a victory away from surpassing the program record with six conference victories. A win over the Knights will also earn USF a shot at its first conference championship if Connecticut upsets No. 25 Temple on Saturday.

So, what happened? How did the Knights spiral from cloud nine to the bottom of the Florida aquifer in a matter of 22 months since that BCS victory last New Year’s Day?

One major catalyst for UCF’s failures was a staggering number of injuries and roster turnover. 

“I think the key for us when you look at the spiral is that injuries to key people at the wrong time,” UCF interim coach Danny Barrett said. “ … The young guys we had in place just weren’t ready at that particular time to step up.”

After taking over for first-round draft pick Blake Bortles last season, junior quarterback Justin Holman missed three games after he was knocked out in the first series in Week 2 at Stanford with a hand injury and has struggled since his return. 

Junior receiver Jordan Akins, who was expected to fill the void of departed stars Breshad Perriman (Baltimore Ravens), Rannell Hall (Tampa Bay Bucs) and J.J. Worton, had both touchdown receptions in a season-opening loss to Florida International on Sept. 3, but is out for the season with a knee injury.

The Knights also lost star running back William Stanback, an All-Conference selection last year, after he was dismissed for multiple violations of team rules in late September. Without him, they’re 128th — dead last — nationally, with 80.7 rushing yards per game.

Aside from offensive woes, UCF’s defense — led by former USF defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan — has been seemingly nonexistent, ranking 115th in efficiency, 112th in pass defense and 95th in rush defense.

In a 52-7 loss at Cincinnati on Halloween, the Bearcats exploded for 726 yards against the Knights. East Carolina found similar success in a 44-7 victory Thursday, posting 622 yards despite rainy conditions.

One could even argue that UCF’s best player has been punter Caleb Houston, who has placed 27 of 62 punts inside the 20-yard line and has 16 of 50-plus yards.

Despite USF’s recent surge, coach Willie Taggart recalls vividly when USF played the role of a punching bag. A year ago, the Knights handed the Bulls their first home shutout in program history — a 16-0 defeat on Black Friday at Raymond James Stadium.

USF was left with four wins and no bowl. UCF, meanwhile, finished 9-4, falling to North Carolina State in the St. Petersburg Bowl.

“I’m sure they’re going through a lot, but they have some talent on their football team,” Taggart said. “They have some talent and that talent has got to grow. We’ve been there before. But that’s what you see on there. You see guys that are trying to make it work. 

“They’re going through a tough situation right now.”

If there’s one thing that’s certain about the Knights, it’s that the Bulls will get their best effort of the season. One more loss will guarantee a winless season for only the third time in program history.

“Our guys are going to go out and play hard for sure,” Barrett said. “We’re trying to finish off this year with at least one positive in the midst of a tough year.”

In other words, it has been a nightmare.

But that doesn’t mean the Bulls will express any newfound sympathy for their neighbors to the east.

“I mean, how do they feel about us?” said sophomore tailback Marlon Mack, who received interest, but was never offered a scholarship from UCF. 

“I guess it’s the same way. Whatever they say, that’s the same way I feel about them.”

USF (7-4, 5-2) at Central Florida (0-11, 0-7)

When: Thursday, 7 p.m.

Where: Bright House Networks Stadium, Orlando

TV/Radio: ESPN, 820-AM