Review: Rutgers Scarlet Knights vs. UCF Knights, 11/21/13, 7:30
Weather: Mid ‘70’s; Ticket: $14 Scalper, Face $38
“Knight Game” by Tree
I flew into the Orlando Airport and arrived to see a decorated Christmas tree a week before Thanksgiving – Ugh. Unlike many of my stadium trips, I had arrived in plenty of time before the game. I picked up my rental car and stopped at a grocery store to pick up some tailgating essentials, primarily beer and chips. UCF is unique in that not only does it have on-campus parking for tailgating, but it is free in several lots. The hard core season ticket holder lots next to the stadium are not free, but I was able to park in a blue lot near the center of campus. It was a small lot, and I arrived when it opened. There were about eight groups of tailgaters set up but the lot never got completely full. According to the regulars, the lot was usually packed but between the weather and it being a Thursday night game, attendance was light. There were also plenty of port-a-potties available. I was a little disappointed with the scene so I decided to follow the continuous stream of the beer case toting and/or scantily clad students heading to the center of the campus. The parade of halter tops, short shorts and flip-flops was a theme to be repeated at all the Florida schools (FAU, FIU) I visited that weekend.
The UCF stadium sits on the edge of campus, which is only fifty years old (as of 2013). The whole place felt brand new and had a unique concentric design with the student union in the center. Just off the center was the large grassy Memory Mall, where fans, mainly students, congregated to drink and tailgate before the game. Unfortunately it was raining when I went to the mall so most students were huddled under tents avoiding the rain. In order to avoid being the creepy old guy trying to hang out with the college kids, I slogged my way back to my car. Luckily, the rain finally stopped and I was able to walk around and talk to some of the other fans. They really didn’t highlight any special traditions at UCF, but in general, they were pretty pumped up at the great season the Knights were having. They were relishing the fact that a BCS trip to the Sugar Bowl was likely in cards if they won out. It was the first time they would be going to a bowl and the Gators were not, and that had to make it special. When I asked about their rival, USF, I expected some trash talk, but as one fan pointed out, they really couldn’t say much. Despite the Bulls recent woes, UCF had never beaten them. The series stood at 0 – 4.
With minimal tailgating going on in my lot, I headed toward the stadium. I really liked the design of the UCF campus. As I walked toward the stadium through campus, the parade of fans became larger and larger. We walked by the students on the mall who were still partying away. The last street to the stadium is lined with name brand shops, bars and restaurants. It was almost like walking down the French quarter, sans the drunks and flashers from above. I still had not bought a ticket, and I was a little worried because I had not seen anyone selling tickets, perhaps because of the high number of police patrolling the area. As I approached the entrance of the Bright House Networks Stadium, I finally saw one scalper. He only had two tickets and was looking to sell the pair. He pointed me to another guy who had three tickets. The only one he had was end zone and I was looking for something a little better. The game was not sold out so I knew I could buy one at the gate but I was still hoping to find a deal. It took a while walking around the stadium, but I finally found a kid looking to dump one of his dad’s season tickets. After some easy negotiations, we settled on $15 for the ticket, at the goal line with a face value of $38. I didn’t have $15, and he couldn’t make change for a $20, so he settled for $14.
The stadium was relatively new and used to be nicknamed the “Trampoline” because they hadn’t put enough bracing in the stands. Evidently, when the place was jumping, it was literally jumping. Unfortunately, or fortunately, safety took precedence and the stands were reinforced to eliminate the spring. It was bench seating inside the stadium but seat backs were available for rental. The sight lines were good and there was a serviceable, if small, video scoreboard. Concessions were fairly pedestrian, although they did sell turkey legs at some of them. I got a souvenir cup with at least one free refill and a hot dog that made its presence known during whole drive to Fort Myers after the game. There was no alcohol sold in the stadium which I noticed several fans circumvented by smuggling in cans of beer.
There were some traditions I observed during the game. The UCF chant, “U C F Knights” was yelled at every kickoff and they have a team chant/cheer. The thing that was funny about the cheer was it was eerily reminiscent in tone to the FSU Seminole chant. I would have thought that UCF would have wanted to differentiate a rival. With UCF being in Orlando, they had worked out a deal with the Lipizzaner Stallions to have a knight on a white stallion deliver the sword to the UCF mascot, Knightro. I thought it would be hokey, but it was actually pretty cool. After the mascot got the sword, he did a bit with where he put the sword in the ground and had some kid in a Rutgers shirt try to pull out the sword. Of course, he couldn’t despite much mock effort. Knightro then pulls out the sword to the cheers of the crowd. Again, it was a bit corny, but still fairly entertaining. The student body really packed the stadium and I was very impressed with their level of attendance. UCF has the other standards of college football: the lame “Another UCF first down”, a pretty good band, and both the traditional cheerleaders and dance teams. Not unlike a number of the female students I saw, the cheerleaders and the dance team were more attractive than usual. Well, I should put that another way. They were not attractive in the USC / UCLA sense; SoCal ladies set the bar for cuteness. This was more attractive in a stripper sort of a way; not that there’s anything wrong with that. It was another theme that was consistent with all the other Florida schools I visited that weekend. Or at least it was at FAU. FIU had almost no redeeming qualities. But in the end, the real attraction of UCF for the game I attended was, undoubtedly, the quality of the football team. They came in with only one loss, a close one to a highly ranked South Carolina team and they had beaten a top ten ranked Louisville team.
I went into this game knowing it could be a blowout. I credited a creative Rutgers coaching staff for keeping it relatively close before the Knights took over the game in the second half. UCF stormed out to a 21 point lead. UCF’s quarterback, Blake Bortles, looked NFL ready with a strong arm and an uncanny ability to shake off Rutgers defenders whenever necessary. I almost felt bad for the Rutgers defense because anytime they had him penned in he found a way to escape. The Rutgers offense struggled but managed to finally score a touchdown when the coach made a great fake punt call to extend the drive. It closed the lead to 21 – 7. UCF immediately responded with another touchdown drive. It looked like the half might end that way, but again, the Rutgers coaching staff made another nice call. Right at the end of the half, the UCF had a rare punting opportunity. Rutgers promptly blocked the kick and recovered in the end zone to cut the lead to 14 with seconds left in the half. I had hoped that this might inspire the Scarlet Knights in the second half. But with a nearly 3 -1 advantage in total offense going to UCF at the intermission, I knew I might be settling in for a rout. Sure enough, it was all UCF in the second half.
After 40 D1 games, I finally got on the big screen and without making a fool of myself. It was right before the start of the second half when I looked up at the video screen and saw the guy in front of me on the screen. He was staring at the field and was totally unaware that he was on the big screen. I gave him a friendly shout and he looked up at the screen and gave it a wave. The camera then panned my way and I gave a casual smile.
Despite the game being a blowout and the wet start, I had a great time at UCF. I found the fans to be friendly and engaged. The campus was very nice, even if it sometimes felt like an outlet mall or a planned community. Having free parking on campus was a major plus and it was very well organized. I would guess that games on Saturday afternoons in September could be pretty miserable temperature wise, but for games in late October and November, the conditions would likely to be ideal. If the product on the field remains at the current caliber, it is soundly in the top third and might even crack the top twenty in destination stadiums. If it is a middling or bad season, it would probably be worth the break from a certain theme park nearby.