Insider: UCF’s 2011 Road Struggles get 1st Test with Akron

Going on the road yielded little success for UCF Football in 2011.  The Knights were 0-6 away from Brighthouse Networks Stadium, their worst mark since an 0-11 2004 campaign, head coach George O’Leary’s first season in Orlando.

This year, they get a chance to prove their road woes are behind them right off the bat, traveling to the state of Ohio in back to back weeks starting with Akron Thursday night.  Considering last year’s issues as the visiting team, senior safety Kemal Ishmael says a win against the Zips is a necessary kick-start.

“It’s huge because when you win a game away it just starts bringing all the momentum back and everybody gets into it,” said Ishmael.  “You just start rolling from there.”

Mapping a game plan to get that initial push in the right direction is easier said then done.  Every first game brings with it the challenges of new personnel, but an entirely new system at Akron awaits UCF.

After being the head coach at Division II North Alabama, Terry Bowden is entering his first season with the Zips.  To prepare, the UCF coaching staff has surveyed UNA game film and even went as far back as 14 years ago to look at Bowden’s time at Auburn.

O’Leary remarked about their extensive tape study, “Once you’re on film, you’re on film for life,” but also admits that the opening tilt is always one that can be boiled down to simpler factors.

“When you go into that first game, you’re only as good as your base offense and base defense,” said O’Leary.  “The first game is always a game of adjustments.  I think the key to any first game is just having enough experience on the field where you can make some adjustments if you need to.”

Adjustments are something that Bowden certainly hopes he is able to bring to Akron.  The Zips are coming off back-to-back 1-11 seasons and have several moving pieces even as the season begins.

Three time leading tackler Brian Wagner left for Arizona before fall camp and another starting linebacker Jamar Williams tore his ACL.  There are significant questions as well on the offensive line and in the secondary.  Akron will start a fifth year senior at quarterback, Dalton Williams, who is familiar with Bowden’s spread offense, but was just a backup at Stephen F. Austin.

With the uncertainty across the roster, Bowden is realistic about the project he has in front of him.

“I feel best about the attitude of our football team,” said Bowden in his weekly press conference.  “You believe there is going to be some confidence.  The negative is just knowing how good (UCF) has a chance to be.  The talent level would have to swing in their favor.”

While the Knights stumbled to a 5-7 mark in 2011, many across the country are echoing Bowden’s comments about the skill on the roster.  However, UCF will need stability at quarterback from first year starter Blake Bortles to realize their potential.

On Thursday, the plan will be to give Bortles a simple road map to success.

“He’s still young,” said O’Leary.  “I think the whole (playbook) is in, but we still have to watch that he doesn’t become so filled with information that he can’t process it.  Obviously, he has the athletic skills.  We just have to limit what we’re trying to get done and nurture him every game.”

By all accounts, Bortles has assumed control of the team and that leadership will be counted on to vault UCF to their first road victory since 2010.  After losing five of those six contests last year by seven or less points, better results away from home seem within their grasp.

Performance in close games has been emphasized so much around the program that a mantra for 2012 has blossomed out of it.

“There were a few games last season, where as a team, we didn’t seem to finish,” said fullback Billy Giovanetti.  “(Finish) being our marketing campaign slogan this year, I feel like it suits our team pretty well.  We need to finish our games this year, finish every play.”