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.
UCF safety Kemal Ishmael said he feels like the Knights defense is ready for the challenge and turned a big corner last week with the defensive line matching a season-best three sacks. That, he said, is going to be particularly important against Tulsa's fast-paced offense.
"We're just like any other team, when you have a good pass rush, it makes it way easier because we don't have to cover longer and forces the quarterback to make decisions that he doesn't want to make," Ishmael said. "...With the quick passes and deep passes that they do, we want them to make bad decisions and throw the ball earlier than he wants to."
O'Leary said though Tulsa has a first-year coach in Blankenship, many of the same tendencies they've had in their previous four matchups _ which are tied at 2-2 _ still exist.
"They are pretty much the same offense they've been in the past. They have good skill kids," O'Leary said. "Defensively, they made a change from a 50 front to a 40 front. So it's a matter of us going out there and executing on all cylinders. I expect a whale of a game."
What could be dangerous UCF is the Golden Hurricane's active secondary, which boasts a league-high 13 interceptions.
Knights' quarterback Jeff Godfrey broke out of a recent slump against Memphis and completed 14 of 20 passes. But he also has as many interceptions as touchdowns (three) in 2011.
He has gotten help the past two games thanks to big games from redshirt freshmen receivers Josh Reese and J.J. Worton. But Godfrey also got back to running the ball more against the Tigers and may do more of the same against Tulsa.
That's something Blankenship said he is preparing his team for, though.
"They are probably one of the more traditional offenses in the East Division...they're not a spread (team)," he said. "They will shift and use tight ends and really focus in on the running game and then try to sting you with play action. Coach O'Leary has been doing that for a long time."