Sept. 9, 2010
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - There was a point in UCF's season-opening romp past South Dakota last Saturday night when Rob Calabrese no longer had to insist that he was a changed man and a different quarterback.
This time, he showed it with his powerful right arm, his legs and his newfound poise in the pocket.
The play was a critical third-and-four from the 11-yard line. Initially, Calabrese saw nothing available on the three-receiver route as the pocket seemed to be closing in on him. A year ago, when Calabrese was yanked from the game, he likely would have bolted from the pocket or checked the ball down to the back in the flat for a minimal gain.
But clearly this time was different. In the hours and minutes before the game, Calabrese was a far cry from the fidgety, excitable quarterback UCF had looked to for stability. This time, he was calm in his approach as he preached to his teammates to just have fun.
And the difference in his demeanor showed on that telling third down play. Calabrese waited, looked off the safety to the right, waited one count more and then let loose a spiral to A.J. Guyton for a touchdown. It was not only a thing of beauty, but a sign that Calabrese clearly isn't the same quarterback who struggled mightily the previous two seasons.
If this were a test, Calabrese performed like the owner of the answer key.
``I felt different in pregame and while sitting at the locker room. I knew my assignments and what I had to do,'' Calabrese said. ``It wasn't like I was all jittery not knowing what to do. Not that that's happened before, but I knew what I had to do and what was going to happen.''
UCF fans are hoping that Calabrese's strong performance happens again when the Knights (1-0) host NC State Saturday night at Bright House Networks Stadium in arguably the most important nonconference game of the season. A victory would be the Knights second in four seasons against the ACC-affiliated Wolfpack and launch UCF into the discussion for a national ranking for the first time in school history.
Calabrese, who has taken notice of the distinct buzz and the `Beat NC State' banners around campus, said Saturday's game can be a statement to rest of the country that the Knights are a program to be taken seriously.
``It's a big chance for us,'' the junior quarterback said. ``This is how you earn respect nationally, especially against ACC teams. We'll have to play well to win, and if we do that we'll get some respect.''
Calabrese might have finally earned some respect from a somewhat doubting crowd on Saturday night. There were light murmurs upon his introduction - something that infuriated head coach George O'Leary at the time.
But Calabrese won over the doubters with his red-hot start and efficient play from start to finish. He completed his first nine throws, including that thing-of-beauty pass to Guyton on his final toss of the second quarter. The way Calabrese stayed calm even in the face of the swarm around him showed a maturation that wasn't always there in the past.
``With that play, I knew what A.J. was going to do. The safety came down inside, so A.J. went down inside and then went back outside,'' Calabrese recalled. ``I knew it would take some time to develop and the offensive line did a great job of giving me time to throw the ball. I waited that extra second and then I threw before he came out of his cut and he was wide open in the back of the end zone.''
What pleased O'Leary the most was the efficiency that Calabrese played with. He hit on 12 of 15 throws, did not have an interception and got the Knights in and out of the huddle quickly. UCF averaged nine yards a play on first down and Calabrese led scoring drives on all four of his possessions.
He'll continue to split time with freshman phenom Jeff Godfrey - who wasn't too bad himself by completing six of seven passes, including his first collegiate touchdown toss - but O'Leary made it clear that the offense is Calabrese's to run.
``I saw a smile on Rob's face during the game and I'd never seen that,'' O'Leary joked. ``I'm excited about how he handled the first game, but we have a different cliental of team pulling into town for the next game.
``Jeff (Godfrey) got a chance to get in there and show what he can do. But with Rob, it's his game.''
That's just want Calabrese wanted to hear. He got several congratulatory calls and text messages from friends and family back in New York. He also got a scolding from offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe for running over a South Dakota defensive back in the third quarter instead of sliding. Deep down, he knows it will take a string of solid games to convince everyone that he is a changed quarterback.
``It felt really good to play the way that we did, but I knew there was another game to prepare for,'' Calabrese said. ``I watched the (South Dakota) game that (Sunday) morning and took the coaching, but I moved on and started preparing for NC State. It felt good, but you can't dwell on games.''
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John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.