As UCF ran onto the Bill Snyder Family Stadium field Saturday night before kickoff, the Knights were greeted by purple smoke and pyrotechnics that ushered in Kansas State’s football team. More than three hours later, UCF left the field in a haze following a disappointing 44-31 loss to the Wildcats.
By Sunday afternoon, the Knights had cleared away any lingering thoughts of the loss and turned their attention toward this Saturday’s opponent: Baylor.
“If you were at our practice, you wouldn’t know that we just got off a tough loss,” coach Gus Malzahn said Monday. “That says a lot about our leaders and says a lot about our players.”
There’s no denying that Saturday’s loss — the first of the season — was disappointing on many levels. UCF (3-1, 0-1 Big 12) rallied twice in the game, leading Kansas State 24-21 with 13:40 to go in the third quarter, but the Knights could not slow down the defending Big 12 champions and overcome penalties and turnovers.
Despite the results, players responded positively in practice Monday, which pleased Malzahn.
“It doesn’t surprise me from the standpoint of knowing how close our team is,” Malzahn said. “We’ve not had any drama. We strained them big-time in camp to set up for this, so it doesn’t surprise me.
“It’s always encouraging that when you go through something like this, then reality hits. That’s when you feel like you understand what type of team you have — when you have some adversity and you come off your first loss.”
The atmosphere surrounding Saturday’s game felt like Power Five football, with a sell-out crowd of 51,000 raucous fans welcoming UCF to its first Big 12 game. Kansas State played like the defending conference champs, amassing 536 total yards as tailback DJ Giddens rushed for 207 yards and 4 touchdowns.
That fact wasn’t lost on the players.
“They were the Big 12 defending champions,” said senior receiver Kobe Hudson. “We had a lot of key pieces down and we beat ourselves if you ask me. I feel like we had that game in reach and there were many things we did that we could have done better.”
UCF was missing several starters, including tight end Alec Holler, left guard Bula Schmidt and defensive tackle Ricky Barber. Quarterback Timmy McClain made his second start for the Knights instead of John Rhys Plumlee, who continues to miss time after suffering a knee injury against Boise State on Sept. 9.
Kansas State was without starting linebacker Daniel Green and tailback Treshaun Ward. Quarterback Will Howard, who was listed as a game-time decision, started and finished 27 of 42 for 255 passing yards plus an interception.
Still, it was a tied game in the second half until the Wildcats retook the lead for good with 1:28 left in the third quarter.
“If those were the Big 12 champions, how far off are we?” added Hudson, who finished with a game-high 138 receiving yards. “Guys are into it and one loss doesn’t define us. We still have what we want in front of us.”
Defensive coordinator Addison Williams credits the team’s leadership for the positive response following the loss and the attitude moving forward as the Knights prepare to face Baylor (1-3, 0-1 Big 12) Saturday at FBC Mortgage Stadium (3:30 p.m., FS1).
“We talked about how sometimes you can lose a game like that and there’s a lot of bickering and talking back and forth in the locker room, but there wasn’t,” said Williams. “There was a lot of motivation and guys came out today in practice with the right attitude, so I expect those guys to respond well.”
Lee Hunter sees the loss as an opportunity for the Knights.
“I’m glad we played Kansas State because that’s probably the best offensive line we’ll face in college,” said the redshirt sophomore defensive tackle. “I’ve got to look at myself in the mirror and I did that. I know what I’ve got to get better at if I’m going to do it against Baylor.”
Hunter, who finished with 6 tackles and half a tackle for loss, believes the only thing that can fix a loss is a win.
“If you fight somebody and they beat you up, you can’t cry about it,” he said. “You’ve got to go back and fight again until you win.”