ORLANDO, Fla. -- When UCF fell behind by 21 points in the season opener against Boise State on Thursday night, coach Gus Malzahn realized what happened the remainder of the game would tell him a lot about his new team.
What he -- and the nation -- learned is that his team has resilience, as UCF rallied for a 36-31 win that ended early Friday morning after a nearly three-hour weather delay pushed back the start. In the process, UCF tied the largest comeback in school history and delivered Malzahn his first victory as Knights coach.
"That's tough to do," Malzahn said. "You get down 21-0 at home against a really good team and just to fight back and what you got to do to fight back to keep believing and making plays and you got to answer the bell again, and they just kept doing it. You could feel it on the sideline. There wasn't any panic. It was a quality victory that will help us moving forward."
The adversity hit from the outset with the delay, and then continued on the opening drive, when UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel threw an interception on the goal line that Tyric LeBeauf returned 100 yards for a touchdown. Boise State took the momentum from there, as Hank Bachmeier picked apart the UCF defense to give the Broncos a 21-0 lead.
But with so much time left in the game, UCF regrouped. Gabriel threw a touchdown pass just before the half. A rousing halftime speech from Malzahn and several players centered on a key theme -- belief.
"We went into halftime with a lot of confidence, and we just talked. 'Hey let's go down the first drive in third quarter -- if we score we win the game," Malzahn said.
UCF did that, as Gabriel threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Johnson to close the gap to 24-21. Gabriel threw another touchdown to give UCF the lead, but he also made another crucial mistake -- throwing another interception to set up a wild final eight minutes.
Boise State converted that interception into another touchdown to take the lead back, 31-30. In the huddle before Gabriel took the field, Malzahn told him, "We're going to go win this thing."
"That just gave me confidence, you know, and it trickles down from up top but just that belief, that camaraderie is something that we built from spring to summer and it's been really showing," Gabriel said.
Gabriel drove UCF down the field, and Isaiah Bowser scored on an 8-yard touchdown to give UCF the lead again. On the ensuing 2-point conversion attempt, Gabriel tried to scramble into the end zone but took a jarring hit to the shoulder that left him down on the field for several minutes. Afterward, he said he was feeling fine and willing to do anything to get his team the win.
Indeed, his performance despite the mistakes was key, as he threw for 318 yards and four touchdowns. So was the emergence of Bowser, a transfer from Northwestern who had a career-high 172 yards rushing and provided a power run game that helped wear Boise State down late in the game. Jaylon Robinson, a transfer from Oklahoma, provided some spectacular catches, too, and finished with 140 yards receiving.
Malzahn has built his name on offense, and his arrival from Auburn has been embraced in Orlando as he has helped promote the UCF brand with the catchphrase, "The future of college football lives here."
Indeed, with talk about a potential move to the Big 12 swirling, building excitement around UCF football again after a disappointing 2020 season would be an added bonus. Malzahn was asked about realignment, and he said he was too focused on the Boise State game to even pay attention.
No matter what happens, there is plenty of work to do for UCF to keep building on the potential it showed in the win, and the potential Malzahn keeps promoting.
"We put ourselves out there," Malzahn said. "We put the bar out, and we told everybody what we're going to do. Now the hard part's doing it. We won the first game, got a chance to improve and be pretty good."