O'Leary, Smith turn UCF around

Team on 3-game streak after losing 17 in row

Analysis

College Football

October 10, 2005|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN REPORTER

A year ago, the University of Central Florida football team was a mess, and new coach George O'Leary had moments when he wondered whether he was crazy to take the job.

The Golden Knights were in the midst of an 0-11 season and the nation's longest losing streak. This season began with two more losses, to bring the streak to 17 straight.

Then came a win last month against Marshall.

"It took the 500-pound gorilla off your back," O'Leary recalled yesterday. "It wasn't just getting a win, it was the losing streak and everything else the kids kept getting thrown in their face. Since that game, they've got a little more bounce in their step."

With Saturday's 38-17 victory over Memphis, the Golden Knights have won three straight and are in first place in Conference USA's East Division with a 2-0 record. It took someone who wasn't around for the losing streak to give UCF some hope for the future.

Kevin Smith, a true freshman tailback from Miami, has gone over 100 yards in each of his past two games, becoming the school's first freshman in 13 years to accomplish that. In gaining 164 yards on 31 carries, Smith outplayed Memphis' DeAngelo Williams, who was being touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate.

O'Leary acknowledges that he was a little lucky to get Smith, who after having a big year as a junior in high school was moved to free safety by a new coaching staff. Smith fell off the recruiting radar, and only UCF, Colorado State and a couple of Mid-American Conference schools offered him a chance at tailback.

"We probably would've had trouble getting him if they left the kid at tailback," O'Leary said.

Smith is one of 11 true freshmen and 18 first-year players who are getting plenty of time for the Golden Knights, who have only nine seniors on scholarship. Another key for UCF has been the improvement of junior quarterback Steven Moffett, who threw three touchdowns passes against Memphis.

"He's playing better," O'Leary said. "I said last year that if he picked up his field leadership and knowledge of the game, spent time on the trade and not the tricks of it, and I think he's done that."

With the latest win, O'Leary is now talking about the possibility of a bowl game this season. There is also a new on-campus stadium on the horizon, with final approval from the school's board of trustees expected next month. The program that O'Leary said could be a `sleeping giant' is waking up.

"You want to control your own situations, traditions and all the other stuff" said O'Leary, who came to UCF after nearly seeing his coaching career end amid the resume scandal that led to his firing by Notre Dame before he ever coached a game in South Bend. "Once the stadium goes up on campus, it'll be a really live place."

With a real live football team.

Here's a look at the rest of the country this weekend.

Best game

Where do we begin? In what was certainly the most hair-raising weekend of the season, Navy and Minnesota won on last-second field goals, Texas Tech won at Nebraska on a touchdown with 12 seconds left and Northwestern preserved a 51-48 win with a last-minute interception.

All would qualify, if not for UCLA coming back from a 40-28 deficit to California in the final quarter with 19 straight points in the final 7 minutes, 30 seconds for a 47-40 win.

Best Heisman push

Add LenDale White's name to the list, joining USC teammates Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. White had 179 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries in a 42-21 win for the top-ranked Trojans over Arizona. White has now out-gained Bush (616 to 601) and has more touchdowns (10 to eight) than his celebrated teammate.

Best BCS push

Penn State is now the only unbeaten team left in the Big Ten after its 17-10 win over No. 6 Ohio State at Beaver Stadium. If the Nittany Lions can beat Michigan in Ann Arbor this weekend, they have a legitimate chance of being undefeated when they finish the season on the road at Michigan State on Nov. 19.

Coaches on hot seat

It seems as if half the coaches in the Big Ten might want to check their front lawns to see if any unhappy fans planted "For Sale" signs. After a week's reprieve after a win at Michigan State, Michigan's Lloyd Carr is feeling the heat again after losing for the second time at home this season, this time to Minnesota. Ohio State's Jim Tressel still has a national championship ring to flash, but the Buckeyes losing their two biggest games of the season doesn't sit well in Columbus. And how about Ron Zook, who after a 2-0 start at Illinois has watched the Fadin' Illini lose four straight, most recently to Indiana.

donmarkus@baltsun.com

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