The 6-4 Knights have managed to overcome a slow start in conference play to put them back in contention for the division title but it's been a stress-inducing run. In 10 games this season, UCF has trailed halftime in nine of those contests. It's a somewhat staggering stat that George O'Leary is all too well aware of.
"I understand that thoroughly well, I dread that at halftime but I think we've left with the right frame of mind in the second half," said UCF's head coach."
Five of the team's wins this year have been come-from-behind victories and in two losses to conference foes ECU and Southern Miss, the Knights managed to overcome self-inflicted wounds early to put the games within a score in the final minutes.
O'Leary points to second half corrections as the reason for the team consistently rebounding from slow starts.
"Basically, what's happening at half time is the coaches are making adjustments and we get back to what we're supposed to be doing and get the players to take ownership of that. I don't think there's a lot of yelling and screaming at half time, what you have to do is make the players understand if you do this correctly, we're going to be successful, that's the selling point at halftime of the games we've been trailing at."
What makes the Knights' knack for forging comebacks so impressive isn't just that they've made their adjustments and then executed but that this is nearly the same team from 2008 that went 4-8. In that forgetful campaign, UCF squandered second half leads on three occasions, including a 49-19 meltdown against Tulsa despite leading 19-14 at the half. What has made the difference then for a UCF team that returned seven starters on defense and 10 on offense?
"It's probably because last year we were quick strike and we didn't finish anything," said O'Leary. "This year we're a little slower at times as far as speed of the game and then we pick it up once we adjust to all that. I think that's probably the reason, it's a lot of the same players. I think it's more us not going at the speed of the game or something that we haven't seen or gotten adjusted to, something like that."
Originally O'Leary began to say different kids but it's been more like one kid, as in Brett Hodges. The senior quarterback transferred from Wake Forest to contend for a starting job and once he earned that opportunity he's thrived, exuding confidence that has trickled down to his teammates. The team as a whole has shown a jump in overall maturity and some of that comes from more experience but strong leadership has paid dividends as well.
"He's a tough kid, I'll you that about him," O'Leary said about Hodges following a comeback win over Marshall. "I think sometimes that rubs off, it's contagious on the rest of the players around you."
The maturation process that the Knights have displayed isn't just because of Hodges. Other seniors like Cory Hogue and Torrell Troup have been leaders on and off the field. Hogue, who leads the Knights with 82 tackles, also acknowledges that making corrections during the half has helped but he thinks it's been a little more than that.
"I think it's us getting those corrections done in the locker room, us getting done what we need to do in the second half and us making sure no one quits on themselves," said Hogue. "We stress at practice to always fight through practice, to never let down and that shows in the second half at a lot of these games. In the home stretch we haven't quit and haven't stopped fighting and we've gotten a lot of wins out of it."
There may not be an exact reason for UCF's ability to turn things around at the half but the program's fortunes have changed for the better, which could easily be observed in Saturday's 37-32 upset over 12th ranked Houston. The win is easily one of the biggest victories in school history and it's not so surprising that UCF was trailing the game 17-7 at the half.
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