UCF Knights reload to face Rutgers

UCF quarterback Blake Bortles threw for a career-high 404 yards in a thriller comeback in Philadelphia.

UCF quarterback Blake Bortles threw for a career-high 404 yards in a thriller comeback in Philadelphia.

Isaac Babcock

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Four quarters after entering their game against Temple as 17-point favorites, the UCF Knights left a game with an unexpected storyline: “Stunning comeback.”

“I told the players when they go to church tomorrow, make sure they’re in the front pew,” head coach George O’Leary told UCFKnights.com after the game. “Somebody’s looking out for them.”

A game after the Knights’ defense held off what appeared to be a certain game-winning touchdown by Houston with a four-and-out goal line stand in the final minute of the game, the Knights allowed the Owls’ P.J. Walker to throw a career-high 382 yards. In the process the Owls posted their second-highest scoring game of the season. But the defense made up for it in the final minute of the game, forcing a Temple punt that would lead to the game-winning UCF score.

The Knights will have to shake off their near-nightmare against Temple as they face a tougher team in Rutgers this week. The Scarlet Knights (5-4, 2-3) are fresh off a 52-17 battering by Cincinnati – tied for their most lopsided loss of the year. But the more telling game for Rutgers may be the one before it on Nov. 2, when they played Temple and won by three points, just like UCF.

That game had a similar signature to the Knights’ narrow escape. The teams traded scores the whole game. Temple had the lead until the final minute. Then Rutgers, the favorite, had to pull off a last-second comeback to win.

Until the final second of their game against Temple Nov. 16, the Knights were narrowly holding off a demon that seems to come up once every season – an unusually tough basement-dwelling team.

The Knights in 2013 had largely evaded the specter of seasons past in which they lost or nearly lost to teams with only a win or two on the season. They had narrowly escaped Memphis (now 1-4 in conference play) Oct. 5 in a bizarre two-touchdowns-in-nine-seconds comeback that ended 24-17. They had seemingly banished that ghost with a 62-17 bamboozling of UConn on Oct. 26.

But a minute into the second quarter of their game against Temple, a program that hadn’t won a conference game all season, the Knights were already in trouble.

The Owls entered the end zone first with a 32-yard pass from P.J. Walker to Jamie Gilmore, and the Knights suddenly were trailing a team that had lost eight games of their last nine.

The Knights struck back when Will Stanback, the on-off hero of several games this season, broke free down the right sideline and blazed to a 49-yard short-pass-turned-long-run touchdown, and the Knights seemingly had things back in hand.

But Temple had other plans, exchanging the lead with the Knights 10 times in the game, more than triple what they’d averaged this season. Only thanks to a last second Shawn Moffitt field goal did the Knights go into halftime leading the game. Little did they know that two quarters later he’d be doing it again, sealing an unlikely Knights comeback with a 23-yard field goal as time expired.

And the Knights only were at that point in the game after two highlight reel plays by wide receiver J.J. Worton that kept them within reach. His second improbable catch, diving horizontally at full extension with one set of fingers barely reaching enough to snag an overthrown bomb into the end zone, tied the game for the Knights with only a minute left to go. Worton would grab 179 yards of catches in the game, a career high.

Worton’s final touchdown would be the offensive score of the entire game for which the Owls didn’t have an answer. A minute later Moffitt’s game-winning field goal soared through the uprights, averting what could have been a disastrous loss for the Knights.

The Knights went 657 yards on offense in the game – the third highest in team history. They allowed 518 yards, a more ignominious milestone allowed largely by the Knights secondary defense, which gave up 382 passing yards. But they came up with the crucial fourth quarter stop when it counted.

Coming up for the Knights, two more games with wide point spreads will give them back-to-back chances at polishing their gameplay against teams looking to make a statement.

Against Rutgers they’ll face an unfamiliar squad. The only other time the two teams have met was at the St. Petersburg Bowl in 2009, when the Scarlet Knights defeated UCF 45-24. Not a single current Knights player was on that squad, though offensive linemen Jordan and Justin McCray’s older brother Cliff was a UCF left guard in the game.

They kick off at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Bright House, televised on ESPN.