ORLANDO, Fla. — UCF continued its gut-wrenching implosion in the first battle of the Civil Conflict, losing their sixth game of the season 13-40 in demoralizing fashion to the UConn Huskies.
It was the return of prodigal son Justin Holman, who was hailed as the heir apparent to Blake Bortles in his second season as the Knights’ starter before missing four games with a finger injury.
Holman looked crisp as ever on the game’s first drive. He drove UCF downfield with seemingly no problems – completing eight of ten passes for 71 yards to six different receivers. A third down pass was dropped in the end zone, but the Knights still drew first blood with a 19 yard field goal.
It was the only time they would score in the half.
The dropped pass woes struck often and in crucial moments for the rest of the game. Drives were ended and momentum was killed with little to no chemistry between Holman and his fresh corps of wide receivers; none of whom entered the season with a reception in the statbook.
“He would have had a nice day but you wonder how many balls he had dropped on him, he had at least five or six there that were big-play potential plays that were dropped on him,” said O’Leary.
Hayden Jones personified the UCF season in a single play with his first career kick return on the ensuing kick from UCONN’s first touchdown of the game with a stutter-step indecision that ended in a safety. It was another clear-cut example of the youth that has been forced into the limelight well before it should have been.
“It was a dumb mistake on the kickoff return, that was. Again, we’ve lost two, three starters back there so far this season. I thought the other returner should have been a lot more demonstrative in telling him to stay in,” O’Leary said about the faux pas.
Momentum proved to be the most evasive temptress from the onset of that initial mistake. Time and time again the Huskies took control of the game, and the more they did so, the more Justin Holman seemed to press. He began forcing throws early in the game, most notably ending two second quarter drives with consecutive interceptions that gifted UConn 14 points.
Holman would end the day 27-50 with three interceptions and a late-game touchdown to Nick Patti.
C.J. Jones continued to display the distinct spark of a playmaker with his 6.3 yard per carry average. He made defenders miss and picked up yards after contact but still could not do enough to take control of the game.
There were few drives that allowed him the touches needed to get a rhythm going, and an injury at halftime saw him replaced by fifth string running back Michael Willett; a walk on.
O’Leary spoke about the concerns of his secondary, the inexperience that kept them from seeing plays develop, and the lack of speed and strength possessed leading up to the game. Not one of the concerns was addressed against UConn.
“There’s a lot of kids out there in my opinion that aren’t ready yet, but injuries and loss of scholarships have forced us to put them on the field,” said O’Leary.
433 yards were surrendered and at a certain point the Huskies were scoring at will, racking up all 40 points without an answer from UCF. The secondary allowed eight receptions of 15+ yards (seven in the first half before the Huskies ran down the clock), the front seven was gashed for 170 yards and UConn converted six-of-seven red zone attempts.
“I thought defenseively we blew a couple of coverages on that wheel route and the tackling was atrocious in the secondary on some of those runs,” O’Leary reiterated.
The Knights committed four turnovers, put up only 60 rushing yards and 315 total yards all day. No phase of their game seemed to be in sync, one touchdowns was scored – and it was deep into garbage time.
“Obviously it gets no easier,” said Nick Patti. “Losing is never fun, you play to win. Stack a couple of losses on top of each other like we have this year and it’ll get tougher and tougher.”
From back to back conference champions to winless halfway through the year, the stakes have been changed from the preseason expectations.
“The new goal is to try to win a game,” O’Leary relented. “We’re starting into the thrust of the schedule now. I think we’re starting the American Conference teams that I think that, all three of them are fairly solid teams that are playing very well.”
The Civil Conflict was a chance for redemption, an opportunity to breathe some life into the fans so desperately craving CPR by victory. Rather, as tough as it is to comprehend after the past few years of conference dominance, it is undeniable that this is the new reality. 0-6.