The Knights’ gut-wrenching 35-34 loss to the Pitt Panthers in Pittsburgh last week was their first in 27 regular-season games since the 2016 finale to South Florida, so the only response Coach Josh Heupel expects is to start a new one.
And, with the Connecticut Huskies, a 42-point underdog, coming into town Saturday for a 7 p.m. kickoff, the coach doesn’t expect different preparation simply because the outcome was different Saturday than it had been in over two-and-a-half years.
“It’s the opening of (AAC) conference play, so it’s another beginning,” Heupel said at a Monday press conference. “We need to be sharp, be focused and be engaged. I ask that every week, so I don’t expect anything else this week.”
The Panthers opened up a 21-0 second quarter lead, only to watch UCF score the next 31 points. But Pittsburgh rallied to find two touchdowns in its final three drives to win it, including a receiver-to-quarterback trick play pass for the winning touchdown with 56 seconds left.
“What they did was difficult to match up to, and the things we did weren’t good enough,” Heupel said. “You have to match their energy and surpass their execution, especially on the road. And we didn’t.”
Gabriel, despite throwing for over 300 yards against a second-straight Power 5 conference defense, was finally made uncomfortable by a team, and was sacked six times.
“Adversity helps everybody, and benefits every position,” said Heupel, who also noted he never considered benching Gabriel when trailing early, an unfamiliar spot. “When it goes well it’s easy, but it’s not. And we self-imposed some of the blows.”
The mood Monday among players was the opposite of pointing fingers. They wanted to come together.
“Adversity can make or break you,” said receiver Tre Nixon, who caught seven passes for 136 yards against Pitt. “I’ve been around here long enough to know it won’t break this team. It’s tough losing on the road, especially when you know you beat yourselves. Now you go about doing what you can so it won’t happen again.”
Veteran senior center Jordan Johnson said not reaching the UCF standard — a win — has kept the team humble.
“The offensive line takes extreme ownership (of the offense), and we didn’t live up to that,” he said. “So it’s back to the drawing board and start a new streak, and be sure Dillon has the time to sit back there more comfortably.”
The Huskies (1-2) are on a streak of their own, opposite of UCF’s heading into Pittsburgh. UConn has not beaten an FBS opponent since a 20-14 win over Tulsa Oct. 21, 2017. Freshman quarterback Zack Sergiotis has yet to throw a touchdown pass this season, but the Huskies defense has run back an interception for a score.