It was business as usual for the Knights in the first quarter Saturday against Southern Miss. They jumped out to a 14-point lead with energetic, versatile offense led by quarterback Jeff Godfrey, and holding the Golden Eagles to a shutout on keen defense.
Then the unthinkable happened as the Knights watched the Eagles score 31 unanswered points to turn a sure win into a devastating 31-21 loss. In simultaneity, the Knights lost their first conference game (after winning 11 straight), their undefeated conference season, and likely their No. 25 ranking in the nation.
And it all came crashing down on them in the Bright House, where the Knights had never lost to the same team twice. Now they can count one, and that team is Southern Miss.
The game would prove uncharacteristic in nearly every way for the Knights, who set team and individual records while in other ways setting season lows.
Ronnie Weaver ran for 112 yards while Jamar Newsome picked up 100 yards in the air. It had been three years since the Knights had a 100-yard rusher and receiver in the same game. For Newsome, his back-to-back games of 100 yards or more receiving is the first for a Knight since 2006. Linebacker Chance Henderson had a career-high 14 tackles.
Then there were the low points. Godfrey threw two interceptions in a game in which many small details could have proved the turning point for the Knights. Long, wide open passes were dropped. Key Eagles passing plays converted third downs. Even though the Knights finally didn’t fumble the ball once, they were forced to turn the ball over with five punts after being so offensively prolific that they hadn’t punted for two full games.
“It’s a setback, that’s for sure,” defensive end Bruce Miller said.
After the game, the Knights were struggling to reconcile the difference between controlling the ball for most of the game, yet somehow fell short in every major offensive category.
They were outgained 414 yards to 335, out-downed by 24 first downs to 18. In what’s become a relative rarity on the Knights even in slow seasons, they were outrushed 150 yards to 145.
Much of that ground game trouble fell on Godfrey, who for the first time this season was only 4th on the team for rushing, picking up a meager six net yards after averaging more than 70 this season.
The UCF drive chart tells a tale of two completely different games for the Knights - at once dominant and dominated on the field. Their first two possessions and their final possession ended in touchdowns. But the eight possessions in between all ended badly. Two interceptions, five punts, and a missed field goal crippled the Knights’ offense.
But defense may have given away the game. After winning all but one of their last 43 games in which they scored 20 points or more, the Knights had a rare loss. That streak had come courtesy of a strong defense, which rarely gives up more than three touchdowns in a game. Saturday they gave up four TDs and one field goal.
Coming off a big disappointment, the Knights are now forced to regroup on the road. They’ll travel to Conference USA basement-dweller Tulane on Nov. 20, then Memphis to close out the regular season Nov. 27. If they win both, they win the East Division, and possibly host the C-USA Championship.