With the injuries, turnovers and mistakes Texas made on Saturday, it's a wonder the Longhorns escaped the inaugural game at Bright House Networks Stadium with a win. But they did, winning 35-32 over UCF in a wild game that was too close for comfort.
"I'm telling you, it was the most unbelievable night I've ever spent in coaching, I think, because every time someone walked up to me to tell me something, it wasn't good," said Texas head coach Mack Brown, shaking his head.
The Texas Longhorns also left Orlando a battered and bruised team. Jermichael Finley had an ice pack on his neck at the end of the game. Limas Sweed had one on his ankle. Ryan Palmer limped into the locker room after the game. Charlie Tanner twisted his knee and missed much of the contest, forcing true freshman Kyle Hix into action at right tackle.
And turnovers came at the wrong time. Texas was on the three-yard-line, about to punch it in when Jamaal Charles coughed up the ball. The Horns stopped UCF on fourth down and McCoy threw the ball into the hands of a DB on the next play. Texas was up 11 late in the game and ready to put it away when Charles again fumbled.
Despite all of the insanity on the field, there was one normal thing that happened.
"What was normal tonight? We won. That was probably the most normal thing," said Brown. "It was good for us again to have a really tough game because we've got a lot of things that we've got to work on and if we'd won by a lot of points nobody'd be talking about those. Everybody will be talking about what we did wrong, which is good. We need that."
Texas quarterback Colt McCoy was 32-of-47 for 259 yards, one TD and one INT in the win. After the game, McCoy echoed his coach's relief that Texas made it out with a win.
"We were down, but we stayed strong, stayed poised. It wasn't the prettiest, we've got to hang onto the football, but it was a win," said McCoy.
Brown also said the difficulties his team faced in this game were good for his younger players to experience.
"It's good that everything that can possibly happen bad happened on the road because a lot of these guys haven't been on an away trip," said Brown. "It's hard to win on the road because you don't get calls. If we'd reviewed any more, we wouldn't of gotten them. I know that. We weren't going to get one."
The Texas defense, which is known much more for its run defense than its prowess against the pass, got run over in the second half by UCF running back Kevin Smith. The running game with Smith is the strength of this UCF team and he showed why on Saturday. Smith tore up the Longhorns for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries with most of his yards coming in the last two quarters. The Knights played close with the No. 6 team in the country, but Smith said he's still upset they didn't get the victory.
"I wanted this one...personally I did," said Smith. "I think we played with great effort. We played all 60 minutes of football."
The UCF fans were also in it for all 60 minutes of football. It was the first game at Bright House Networks Stadium. Central Florida previously played its games in the Florida Citrus Bowl, but the school's new bowl is on campus and the noise was deafening all game long.
"I was having to yell," said McCoy. "On one play, I audibled and the left side of the line heard it and the right side didn't."
The fans were juiced from the beginning, but it took awhile for their team to get on the same page. In an attempt to surprise Texas, the Knights came out throwing, but came up empty on the first drive, going three-and-out.
Texas, on the other hand, was firing on all cylinders, at least to start the game. Quick passes to Quan Cosby, a big run from Charles and a fake field goal run on fourth down from the now-healthy Jordan Shipley put Texas with first and goal from the seven. But after an incomplete pass and two short runs, Texas was forced to settle for a 19-yard Ryan Bailey field goal.
This would be the theme of the game.
During the ballgame, Texas managed to get the ball into the red zone six times, but only scored a touchdown once. After the game, McCoy admitted he was frustrated with the team's red zone offense.
"There were a lot of opportunities and chances for us to score points," said McCoy. "We have to figure out a way to get the ball into the end zone when we are down in the red zone."
The Knights' second drive was much more productive than their unsuccessful first. The passing game started working, but also because UCF started involving its star, Smith, in it. Smith took a pass 24 yards down to the Texas two and on the next play plowed into the end zone to give his team a 7-3 lead.
This was one of the loudest points for the crowd because they were beating No. 6 Texas, but the sound of the crowd was silenced by the sound of thunder.
Both teams were cleared from the field and fans were urged to seek shelter when a 15-minute lightning delay halted the game. It was a quite effective momentum killer (it'd be nice for the Longhorns if they could take a 15 minute break every time an opponent scored).
The rain continued in spurts, but that was all that was in the forecast and the teams retook the field.
Texas gathered itself and quickly drove down the field using a flurry of short passes out of the break with McCoy hitting new favorite target Nate Jones between two defenders for the 6-yard touchdown pass to end the drive. It was 10-7 Texas. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis said that those short passes are important to the offense and help set up, or sometimes act as, the running game.
"We use the short passing game to help with the run game. Most of the night they were defending a zone situation and so we were using a lot of short passes as our run game," said Davis.
The Knights' offense continued its effectiveness on the next drive, moving down into field goal range and getting another three points on an impressive 47-yard Michael Torres field goal. Suddenly, Texas was tied and this supposedly easy game wasn't looking so easy.
This is also when the game started getting really ugly. The teams traded three-and-outs. When Texas finally did get the ball moving, Charles coughed it up on the aforementioned fumble in the red zone...then Central Florida coughed the ball right back up, with Brandon Foster picking up a Kyle Israel fumble, which was forced by Texas safety Marcus Griffin. But Texas couldn't capitalize, as Bailey missed a field goal for only the second time in his career.
Then UCF went three-and-out.
Then Texas went three-and-out.
Good Lord! Somebody just make a play!
Well, that somebody was Foster. On first and ten for UCF, Israel hit receiver Rockey Ross in the hands, but the ball tipped into the air and and was intercepted by a charging Foster, who didn't even break stride as he galloped 33 yards to paydirt, giving Texas a 17-10 lead. It was a huge play, one of several for Foster in the game, but he said his biggest play wasn't really a play at all.
"The biggest play to me is winning. That was a great group of guys we were playing against out there and all that matters is we got out of here with a win," said Foster.
Texas managed to grab one more field goal before the half and was up 20-10. Not an overly comfortable halftime lead, but solid and it boded well for the second half.
To start the second, Texas went to Finley twice and got a 28-yard, tackle-breaking scamper from Charles, but couldn't move it any further and Bailey added a 42-yard field goal to take the score up to 23-10 Texas.
After a two-yard rush and an incomplete pass for the Knights, it looked like their offense would continue to sputter. But on third down, Israel hit J.R. Sandlin on a 14-yard out to get the first and then got 15 more when Deon Beasley hit Sandlin out of bounds for a personal foul on the Longhorns. On the next play, Smith took off up the left sideline for a 36-yard gain down to the Texas three-yard line. UCF then powered up the middle with Smith for the score and the Texas lead was down to 23-17.
It was time for Texas to respond and the Horns responded alright...with a three and out.
Texas punted the ball away and that's when the rain really started driving down. There were a couple more very lackluster drives for each team and UCF was unable to convert a fourth and 12. Texas got the ball back, got the momentum, and it was time to go deep and McCoy did...right into the hands of UCF defensive back Joe Burnett.
It was the Knight's turn to attack and attack they did. A 32-yard run for Smith put Central Florida in position to score. But on first, second and third down inside the five, UCF couldn't put the ball in the end zone, setting up a fourth and goal from the 1. The Knights opted for a speed option to the right side, but instead of pitching it to Smith, Israel plowed it in himself, giving UCF the touchdown. With the extra point, the Knights took a 24-23 lead with 13:38 left in the game.
Texas moved back down the field, but could only manage another field goal. Bailey hit a 40-yarder, a career-best fourth field goal in one game, and Texas was back on top 26-24.
Holding UCF to another three-and-out, Texas got the ball back and again moved efficiently down the field, most notably on a 38-yard strike from McCoy to Shipley on a rollout, but again Texas had to settle for a field goal.
Bailey tied a school record with his fifth field goal of the game, nailing a 37-yarder with 5:17 to go in the game, giving Texas a 29-24 lead. Field goals ended up being a huge part of the Texas win and Brown said he was very proud of his kicker's performance.
"Ryan Bailey was unbelievable. He was like Colt last week. He missed the first kick like we did and came back and made the long field goals straight through. I thought, for pressure kicks, that we needed, when we needed them, Ryan was one of the keys to the ball game," said Brown.
After the game, Bailey told Inside Texas one of the main reasons he was able to come back from his early miss was the support provided by his teammates.
"It's really cool to come off the field and my teammates say, 'It's alright. It's all good. You'll get the next one,'" said Bailey. "The support of my teammates and knowing that they still believe in me really helps."
But the Horns weren't done.
Marcus Griffin recovered another fumble, this one forced by Ryan Palmer, and Texas took over on the UCF 46. On the very next play, Charles shot down the field for a 46-yard touchdown. Texas didn't convert the two-point try, but, clearly, the Horns had finally gained control of the ballgame and could leave with a solid victory.
But the Knights weren't done either.
UCF was forced to punt, but Charles fumbled for the second time in the game while Texas was trying to run out the clock and the Knights took over with 1:24 left in the game, an 11-point deficit and 38 yards between them and the end zone.
They answered the call, as Israel hit pass after pass, the final one being a seven-yarder to Kamar Aiken for a touchdown. Central Florida successfully converted the two-point conversation and was only down by three with 35 seconds to go. That meant it was onside kick time.
Let me set the scene for you. Not much time to go in a game where Texas is barely up against a lightly regarded opponent and must successfully stop an onside kick attempt to escape with the win.
Sound familiar? It should, because it's the same scenario that Texas faced in the opener against Arkansas State. But, just as he did in the first game, Foster stepped up and recovered the onside kick (with no blown call by the officials this time), sealing the victory for Texas. Texas co-defensive coordinator Duane Akina said Foster's onside kick recoveries have been great plays for the Longhorns that don't get a lot of recognition.
"A lot of people take that for granted, but that is a huge football play in the opener and this one. And that is not an easy play. That takes focus and skill," said Akina.
Texas got the win. It wasn't pretty, a lot went wrong and there's a lot of work to be done, but they got it.
"We have so many things to get fixed. I'm sincerely happy to be 3-0," said Brown.
The Longhorns will look to improve their record to 4-0 when they return home to take on Rice in next week's game. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. at DKR.
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