Three offensive series into Saturday’s game against Southern Miss, the UCF football team could see it was going to be a long night.
Quarterback Rob Calabrese fumbled on two of UCF’s first three drives, with one of those being returned for a 22-yard touchdown. The Knights couldn’t get their offense going in the second half, resulting in a 26-19 loss at “The Rock,” M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg Saturday night.
The Knights recorded just one yard of offense in the third quarter and couldn’t fight back from an early 14-0 deficit in the game springing from those two early fumbles.
"That was hard because you are playing away and you give up momentum right away,” O’Leary said in a press release about the two early fumbles. “I thought the kids hung in there on the first one and then they missed the field goal. The second one they took in for a touchdown. That's the difference in the game really."
A late 5-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Brett Hodges to Rocky Ross in the back of the end zone, pulled the Knights to within seven (26-19) with 1:22 remaining; but the team failed to recover the onside kick.
For the second straight game, Hodges relieved starter Calabrese early in the first quarter and got the offense rolling, leading UCF down the field on an 18-play, 68-yard drive for their first score of the game off a 28-yard field goal by Nick Cattoi. Hodges finished the game completing 15-of-26 passes for a career-high 158 yards and two touchdowns.
After the game, O’Leary hinted towards Hodges passing Calabrese for the starting job.
“I have been very pleased with him,” O’Leary said in the post-game press conference. “I think he makes the right throw and he makes the right reads. He very rarely makes bad decisions, which I think allows him to move the ball. I have to sit down with the offensive staff, but after tonight’s performance, I would say that it looks like it’s his football team.”
Hodges helped pull the Knights to within a score off a 79-yard drive late in the first half, connecting with Kamar Aiken from four yards out for the touchdown. He completed passes of 19, 20 and 29 yards down the field to set up the score. It was his second long drive of the game.
"We were all working as a unit and we were converting third downs,” Hodges said in a press release of the long drives. “My running game was working which opened up my passing game, and the passing game working opened up our running game.”
Defensively, the Knights struggled to contain USM’s triple threat on offense.
QB Austin Davis ripped apart the UCF defense for 253 yards passing and a touchdown while completing 23-of-31 passes. Davis spread the ball around with seven different players nabbing a reception, including WR DeAndre Brown, who had a team-high seven receptions for 75 yards. On the ground, UCF struggled to hold down Golden Eagles running back Damion Fletcher, who gained 154 total yards from scrimmage with 21 carries and six receptions.
Bruce Miller, who recorded three tackles and a sack on the night, was disappointed in his defense’s performance.
“We had a chance to make a lot of plays and we didn't make them and get off the field,” he said. “In a game like this when it is on the line in a loud and crazy environment you have to do what you got to do. You got to make plays and I am not sure we made a whole lot of them.”
Despite the loss, O’Leary will go into next week’s game against Buffalo knowing the team will need to fix obvious mistakes and that he will have a new starting quarterback.
“[The loss is] disappointing because it's the first conference game,” O’Leary said in a press release. “I think the players know that we gave up some points that you can't give up. I think they understand that. Close only counts in horseshoes. I think the big thing is that we just have to re-coup. We've got a bunch of games left to play and continue to basically get better in some areas we need help in.”