The Knights started their 2009 campaign with a narrow 28-24 victory over the FCS slotted Samford Bulldogs. While the team got off to a sluggish start, UCF finished strong and ended the game with a nice amount of momentum.
UCF's defense and special teams kept made up for an ineffective offense in the beginning of the game, as UCF managed to maintain respectable field position.
After a 21 yard punt return by Rocky Ross, the Knights found themselves in the red zone, but later in the series, Ross caught a would be first down inside the five yard line only to cough it up, as the Bulldogs recovered the fumble and dodged a bullet.
Not taking advantage of scoring opportunities was a common theme for the Knights during this game, as Ross' turnover combined with several missed field goals left plenty of points off the board.
"You have the ball inside the five (yard line) twice and you fumble the ball onetime and get a penalty in the red zone," said Knights head coach George O'Leary following the game. "Then you miss two field goals and a PAT. You can't leave points like that off, that's 17 points you have to be able to put on the score (board.)"
With a new lease on life, the Bulldogs took the ball from their own 20-yard line and marched up the field. Sophomore quarterback Dustin Taliaferro showed poise and polish as he led the team into UCF territory and finished the drive by finding a leaping Riley Hawkins for a 29-yard score on a fade pattern to get the first points of the game. Hawkins made the miraculous catch over the taller Justin Boddie.
Following another three and out, the boo birds came out from a disgruntled student section and the Knights took out incumbent Rob Calabrese for senior quarterback Brett Hodges.
In the second series for the Wake Forest transfer, the Knights finally found an offensive spark with the guidance Hodges' steady hand. The Knights started the ball in Samford territory and this time they took advantage of their defense's hard work. Hodges hit three passes on the series, including a beautifully thrown corner pass to Kamar Aiken, who used his body well to haul in the catch on the one-yard line. Brynn Harvey punched the ball in the end zone on the next play to tie the game at seven as the half dwindled down.
"I thought Hodges went in and did a good job," said O'Leary. "He moved the team and he plays well within himself and I was pleased with that."
Hodges led the Knights to four scores in the game and his heady play helped prevent the team's offense from looking too reminiscent to last year's unit. On the evening he was 10-of-17 for 129 yards and a touchdown.
"I think I did pretty well for not playing in a while and playing in a brand new offense," said Hodges.
As methodical the game was in the first half, the second half was equally explosive for both teams.
On the opening kickoff, freshman burner Quincy McDuffie found a crease on the sideline and took the ball 95 yards for a score, giving the Knights a 13-7 lead. Freshman kicker Jamie Boyle missed the ensuing extra point attempt, which was his second missed kick of the game, as he also misfired on a 36 yarder in the first quarter.
The underdog Bulldogs responded to take a 14-13 lead just 40 seconds later when wide receiver Richie Fordham took a handoff and found wide receiver Riley Hawkins wide open on the wide receiver pass to score from 67 yards out.
With a chance to respond, Hodges had a rare, yet significant miscue. Looking for Aiken on a curl, the senior didn't locate linebacker Ryan Anderson underneath and the Bulldog defender got his hands on the ball and returned it for a pick six, putting Samford in the lead, 21-13.
Now UCF fans would have the opportunity to see if Hodges would fold or rise to the occasion and he didn't disappoint. The drive started with a 26 yard pass off of play action to Rocky Ross and then the team chipped away to the goal line, as Brynn Harvey found the end zone again for his second one-yard score. The Knights then tied the game at 21 after Harvey caught a swing pass for the two-point conversion.
Harvey exceeded the century mark, earning a hard-earned 111 yards on the ground. While he wasn't explosive, Harvey was a workhorse, running the ball 31 times and finishing with a pair of touchdowns and a two-point conversion.
Following a questionable personal foul call on Torrell Troup on what would have been a failed third down attempt for the Bulldogs, Samford's drive stayed alive and the team was able to convert a field goal to take the 24-21 lead.
Special teams again was a mixed bag for the Knights. Darin Baldwin returned the ensuing kickoff for 72 yards, but Boyle again came up short, missing a game-tying field goal from 33 yards out.
Ross, who had five receptions for 85 yards and 176 total yards, redeemed himself late in the fourth quarter, returning a punt for 39 yards, giving the Knights excellent field position at Samford's 32-yard line. Hodges hit Ross for a 20 yard reception to put the Knights in the red zone and later in the series, Hodges found Jamar Newsome on third and goal for a score, giving the Knights 28-24 lead.
The Knights held on the rest of the way, keeping the Bulldogs off the scoreboard en route to a 28-24 victory. While the team didn't make the best of all offensive opportunities, the Knights never gave up and refused to let the Bulldogs pull off the upset.
"I thought our kids fought back and I thought this was a good game to learn from," added O'Leary.
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