ORLANDO, FLA. (AP) - Central Florida and Tulsa took very different paths through the month of October.
For the Knights (4-4, 2-2 Conference USA), it was a month spent mostly in quicksand. They dropped back-to-back conference games, including a stunning setback to UAB, and in the process left their hopes of repeating as East Division champions severely fractured.
Tulsa (5-3, 4-0) finished October 4-0 and brought itself redemption from its rocky 1-3 start to the year that included losses to three Top 10-ranked non-conference foes.
Thursday night, their winding paths intersect as two teams that have met twice in the C-USA title game since 2005 face off in an important momentum game for both team’s hopes of getting back there.
Golden Hurricane’s coach Bill Blankenship said that despite UCF’s recent woes, he said it’s no secret that the Knights are still a dangerous team.
“Our guys are very clear in knowing that UCF is 4-0 at home,” he said. “They’ve given up no touchdowns against opposing offenses at home. They have a defense that’s only giving up 14 points a game. They are, on average, holding the opposing offense to 55 plays a game.
“Those are all numbers that will get your attention very quickly.”
Since the Knights’ fast start to 2011 fell apart, coach George O'Leary has been digging deep in his playbook to find a way to motivate his team.
Last week before UCF went out and blanked Memphis to snap a two-game losing streak, O'Leary called on former Knights’ standout running back Kevin Smith to give a pregame talk.
Smith kicked the coaching staff out of the locker room and wrote the words “All In” on a white board. One-by-one each player wrote their number underneath it to signify their commitment.
Following the 41-0 shutout win, several players called it a “statement game.”
Center Jordan Rae said the change in mood around the team was the most noticeable thing that changed leading up to it.
“It was with the whole group,” Rae said. “All last week we just stressed having fun. Being focused, have having fun doing what we do. We came out there, everyone was focused and it showed.”
But Rae and others also acknowledged this week that beating up on a struggling Memphis team is hardly the level of competition they will face opposite Tulsa.
The Golden Hurricane feature the nation’s fifth-leading tackler on defense in linebacker Curnelius Arnick (94 tackles in seven games) and an offense that in four conference games has scored over 30 points and has an average winning margin of 23.5 points.