Aug. 8, 2007
Orlando, Fla. (www.UCFAthletics.com) -
Mike Kruczek's first season as UCF's head coach in 1998 was unlike any other during his six-year tenure. The Knights went 9-2 in his rookie year at the helm and Daunte Culpepper nearly led the Knights to earning their first bowl bid in only the third season in I-A. However, the next five seasons, UCF would win no more than seven games in any one year and after a 3-7 start to 2003 Kruczek would step aside.
Between 1999 and 2002, UCF had several opportunities to record wins over formidable opponents that, if not for a freak fourth quarter turnover or penalty or made extra point, the Knights might have been among the national discussion.
In 1999, UCF had difficulty in replacing Culpepper, the all-everything quarterback, in addition to 12 starters in all and sputtered to a 4-7 finish. Similar to other seasons at the time, the schedule always played tough with games against nationally-ranked opponents Purdue, Florida, Georgia Tech and Georgia in successive weeks to start the year.
The first chance came in week four on the road at No. 11 Georgia, where trailing 24-17 late in the fourth quarter, junior college transfer Vic Penn hit fullback Page Sessoms in the endzone to come within one point, 24-23, with a few minutes remaining. Kicker Javier Beorlegui's extra point attempt would stunningly hit the upright to hold the score. UCF would still have another late chance forcing the Bulldogs to punt with 1:41 left to play. At its own 19-yard-line, Penn would proceed to lead a victory march that finished at the Georgia 20 following a 22-yard scamper by the quarterback. After spiking the ball with 22 seconds remaining, Penn would go for the endzone looking for Kenny Clark down the left sideline but his pass fell incomplete. Hard to believe, but Clark was flagged for offensive pass interference on the play pushing the ball back to the 35-yard-line. Two plays later, Penn was sacked and his final desperation pass into the endzone on fourth down was intercepted as the clock expired.
Later that year, UCF would make another late season trip to Auburn and have yet another chance to tame the Tigers on homecoming. The Knights nearly had the game won, leading 10-7 with less than four minutes remaining, but Auburn exploded, scoring 21 unanswered points in a span of 97 seconds to take the 28-10 victory. In the game, Penn threw for 374 yards while receiver Charles Lee caught 11 passes for 203 yards.
The season would end with a disappointing loss at home to Bowling Green when the Falcons came back from a 24-12 fourth-quarter deficit to win 33-30 in overtime.
Undoubtedly, the 2000 season was remembered for the impressive 40-38 win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Finally, the Knights had come away victorious after falling at least a dozen times in these so-called program-defining games before that. Beorlegui came through in the bout against an SEC opponent when his 37-yard game-winner with three seconds to play handed UCF its monumental victory.
The Alabama game was a thriller as momentum shifts were as prevalent as touchdowns. UCF opened with a quick 10-0 lead, followed by 24 unanswered Crimson Tide points, which was followed by 27 unanswered UCF points and finally 14 straight by `Bama in the fourth quarter. That's when quarterback Ryan Schneider and his Knights took over at their own 21 with 2:21 remaining. He threw for 283 yards and three touchdowns in the game and on the final drive calmly marched the Knights 59 yards, completing 7-of-8 passes to set up Beorlegui's attempt.
That season, like others, UCF could find highlights in losses. First of which was taking George O'Leary's Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to the brink of loss in the season-opener, only to fall 21-17. With UCF leading 17-7 with four minutes remaining, Tech quarterback George Godsey came alive to throw two late touchdowns.
To end the year, a school-record crowd of 50,220 came out to watch the Knights take on No. 8 Virginia Tech, the highest-ranked home opponent to visit the Citrus Bowl, and possibly gain that elusive first bowl berth. Unfortunately, the Virginia Tech defense was up to the challenge forcing a season-high six UCF turnovers in a 44-21 win for the Hokies.
On November 1, 2001, UCF received an invite to compete in the Mid-American Conference East Division to start the 2002 season, making 2001 the last competing as Independent. The Knights would go a perfect 5-0 at home that season, but finished 6-5 overall. The lopsided schedule was the result of the tragic events of September 11 that led to the postponement of that week's game with Louisiana-Lafayette and the home schedule not starting until October.
The season started with a disappointing 21-13 loss at No. 19 Clemson, where a fake field goal resulted in a touchdown and a missed extra point by UCF would prove to be the difference in the defeat. Three weeks later, in the first meeting with Tulane, redshirt freshman Alex Haynes rushed for 148 yards and a school-record four touchdowns to give the Knights their first win on the year, 36-29. It was Haynes' second consecutive 100-yard rushing game, going over the mark in a 21-10 loss at Syracuse in week two.
Four road games and more than a month into the season, UCF finally played at home and defeated UAB, 24-7. It was UCF's best defensive performance that season, holding the Blazers to just 111 offensive yards. Defensive end Elton Patterson was a force in recording 14 tackles, five of them behind the line of scrimmage, two sacks and a forced fumble. Linebacker Tito Rodriguez also starred in that game and the season by leading the team with 143 tackles, including a school-record 100 solo stops, which was third-best in the nation.
After 23 years as an Independent, the 2002 season marked UCF's first in the MAC, competing in the east division for football only. Heading into the season, UCF had gone 11-4 against MAC schools since moving up to I-A in 1996. The season prior, the Knights even put a resounding 57-17 score on visiting Akron.
Following the 2001 season, Sloan would move on from UCF and Hitt would go out and tap Georgia Tech senior associate athletics director Steve Orsini to become the school's new AD. Orsini, a former Notre Dame star fullback who captained the Irish' 1977 national championship squad, had also spent five years as an associate athletics director and treasurer at the U.S. Naval Academy and 10 years with the Dallas Cowboys. He was also a noted administrator and sound in his business affairs, which would prove critical in the coming seasons as facility upgrades, expansion and construction would become a major focus for UCF athletics.
UCF easily had the toughest schedule in the conference in 2002, featuring road games at Penn State and Arizona State to open the season and a home game against Syracuse to highlight the non-conference slate. Different from other seasons, though, was now the eight critical conference games against the MAC. The first season didn't go all too bad as UCF finished as a runner-up in the MAC East with a 6-2 conference record, going 7-5 overall. The two losses were to Marshall and Toledo, the two teams that matched up for the championship game.
UCF opened the year in front of its largest crowd, 103,029, who watched the team play at No. 24 Penn State, in the Knights second all-time national TV appearance in State College, Pa. UCF, like so many times before, battled to the end only to come up short, 27-24. Penn State carried just a 10-9 lead at halftime, but came out in the second half to score 17 unanswered points. UCF would score two late fourth quarter touchdowns, but the Nittany Lions recovered an onside kick attempt and subsequently ran out the clock. Quarterback Ryan Schneider had 345 yards passing in the contest, with 153 of them going to receiver Doug Gabriel on 11 catches. Freshman kicker Matt Prater had a strong debut in the game, connecting on three of four field goal attempts, including a 53-yarder.
Schneider developed into UCF's next great passer since Culpepper graced the college gridiron, and would move past Culpepper in the UCF record books when he passed for 440 yards during a tough 38-35 loss to visiting Syracuse. For the season, he would top the 300-yard plateau seven times and the 400-yard mark twice en route to setting school records for passing yards in a season (3,770) and passing touchdowns in a season (31). He went on to finish fourth nationally in passing efficiency and fifth in total offense.
Gabriel, who became the first UCF player to play in the Senior Bowl, broke an 18-year-old school record when he racked up 324 all-purpose yards in that loss to the Orangemen and finished the year with a school-record 1,237 yards receiving. Combined with fellow receiver Jimmy Fryzel and his 1,126 yards, the pair became the most prolific receiving tandem at UCF.
The most successful NFL Draft by numbers awaited UCF in 2002, as four players heard their names called on the second day, while five others sign as free agents. Drafted were cornerback Asante Samuel (4th, New England), Gabriel (5th, Oakland), center Mike Mabry (7th, Baltimore) and Patterson (7th, Cincinnati), while punter Ryan Flinn (Seattle), Fryzel (Miami), tight end Mario Jackson (New Orleans), offensive tackle Brian Huff (Green Bay) and offensive guard Taylor Robertson (Philadelphia) signed free agent contracts. Robertson, from Ontario, would also go in the CFL first round to Calgary (13th overall).
During the 2002 season, UCF also began construction on the Wayne Densch Sports Center, a $7 million, 44,000 square-foot building that would house the football program, equipped with a new state-of-the-art weight room, team and unit film rooms, locker room, coaching offices and sports medicine facilities.
With a runner-up finish the season prior, new football offices and the 25th anniversary of UCF football ahead, the expectations were high going into the 2003 season. Schneider was a preseason Johnny Unitas and Davey O'Brien award candidate, while several others garnered national attention, too, including linebacker Stanford Rhule, on the Butkus Award watch list; Haynes, Doak Walker watch list, and cornerback Atari Bigby, who was on the Bronko Nagurski preseason watch list.
Unfortunately, the Knights never got on-track and fell to 3-9 overall, 2-6 in the conference. It was also during 2003 season that UCF learned it had received an all-sports invitation to join Conference USA, beginning in 2005. What this would mean was that for the 2003 and 2004 seasons, many MAC opponents took it personally when playing UCF.
Schneider's senior season ended early due to suspension, halting his bid to top all of Culpepper's records of which he was in-line for. His career at UCF ended with 10,976 passing yards and 82 touchdown passes, second in both categories. There were several key injuries, defections and suspensions that depleted UCF's roster greatly. Following a 19-13 loss at Eastern Michigan on November 8, Kruczek was relieved of his coaching duties with the Knights sitting at 3-7. Longtime assistant Alan Gooch was promoted to interim head coach for the final two games of the year. Gooch began his 25-year tenure at UCF as a defensive back in 1981 and spent the next 22 seasons as an assistant coach.