"Every great competitor, after every game, you feel one of two emotions," O'Leary recalled telling his players. "Either great joy or great sadness."
The Knights were competitive in big games on the national stage before — matchups against higher-profile programs such as Ohio State and Kansas State. They usually got back on the plane without any joy, lamenting the mistakes they made.
UCF finally changed the script.
With a 34-31 victory over Penn State (2-1) at Beaver Stadium, UCF (3-0) announced itself as a serious player on one of the biggest stages in college football.
"A tremendous win," Knights receiver J.J. Worton said. "It is a very emotional win for all of us. And the fact that we came up here to their stadium, one of the biggest stadiums in the nation, and we were able to get a [win], it really showed the world what we can do."
Players rushed onto the field as the final seconds ticked off the clock. Fans in the stands chanted "U-C-F." The celebration felt like a release of all the frustration pent up through the years.
The Knights were clearly the better team throughout the game, a message that was masked by a few late mistakes that allowed the Nittany Lions to cut an 18-point gap to three. UCF rolled up 507 yards of total offense. The Knights scored more than 30 points for a fourth consecutive game dating back to last season. Penn State gave up more points to UCF than any other nonconference opponent since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993.
The victory was no mistake.
For a team that can too easily be dismissed as a smaller program from a non-power five conference and for players who have felt overlooked at times, the result took on even more meaning.
"We definitely play with a chip on our shoulders, I know I do," said UCF quarterback Blake Bortles, who completed 20 of 27 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns. "We didn't have the offers from Penn State and the big schools. So when we come here and play, we want to make sure that they know we can play with them. And we took advantage of our opportunity."
The Knights will have a bye week to bask in the victory before shifting their focus to another monster opportunity. On Sept. 28, No. 12 South Carolina will visit Bright House Networks Stadium. The game against the SEC title contender is nearly sold out.
During the weekend, however, the Knights weren't thinking about South Carolina.
Nearly an hour after the game, smiling players walked out of the locker room. They were met by UCF fans clad in black and gold who were pressed up against the steel barriers that lined the path to the team bus. The fans clapped and cheered. Some broke out into "U-C-F" chants. Another group of students would greet the players and coaches at about 1:30 a.m. Sunday when they finally returned to campus.
In the midst of it all, UCF junior linebacker Terrance Plummer smiled as he recalled O'Leary's pre-game speech. The coach told his players he wanted to leave Penn State feeling great joy.
"And we're going home happy," Plummer said.