A year ago, a game against the UCF Knights would be just what the doctor ordered for the beleaguered Cincinnati Bearcats, who are dealing with a dismal offense and a coach who is sitting on the hottest seat in the country.
Its too bad that in 2016 UCF has made drastic improvements, making Saturday’s road contest bring up more feelings of dread than confidence. The Knights opened as 10-point favorites in this contest and there’s no reason to be offended by that if you are a UC fan. Averaging only 11 points per game over the last four outings and sporting a 1-4 success rate in conference play, the Bearcats won’t be favored again this season, unless something drastically changes. Holding out hope for such a development has been a futile task but its one that will push UC forward this Saturday.
After winning at least nine games in four times from 2010 to 2014, UCF was a program that seemed to have figured things out. Then it came crashing back down to earth, smashing through the crust and pelting all the way to the other side of the globe. In 2015, UCF played 12 games and lost all of them. That led to one more loss, as head coaching George O’Leary was sent packing eight weeks into the campaign.
In his place UCF installed Scott Frost, the former offensive coordinator at Oregon. Taking over a winless team is a tall task but its one Frost took to and took to well. The Knights are 5-4 overall and 3-2 against the rest of the American Athletic Conference. That may not be the same type of record UCF got used to when guys like Blake Bortles and Breshad Perriman were playing, but it is certainly an incredible leap above last year’s output and the expectations set during the summer. In fact, with a win on Saturday, UCF will earn itself bowl eligibility, something that was impossible to imagine just a few months ago.
Ironically enough, the offensive-minded Frost has overseen more of an overhaul on defense than offense by UCF. The Knights ranked 10th in the AAC in total defense last season and were No. 62 in defensive S&P+. They have cracked the top 25 in the latter category this season while allowing only 364 yards of total offense per game. The key for the turnaround has been pressure. UCF’s defenders have been excellent at pinning back their ears and gunning for the quarterback, racking up 28 sacks, the second-most in the conference behind Temple. That’s right, the same Temple team that held UC to 186 total yards two weeks ago.
Facing off against such a strong defensive squad makes UC’s goal of rekindling the offense that much tougher. Last week against BYU the Bearcats finished with only 295 yards of total offense, while converting on a miserable 4-of-13 chances on third down. They also failed to find the end zone on two red zone trips and have now been kept without a touchdown in six-straight quarters dating back to the Temple game.
Adding another element of difficulty is the fact that the Bearcats will likely be without running back Mike Boone, who left the BYU game with a lower body injury. His status remains uncertain but indications are that he will not play or at least not be at full health.
Boone’s absence will be felt on offense and special teams, as he is the primary kick returner for the team, averaging 24.1 yards per return. While his rushing has been muted this season (388 yards, 3.7 YPC) he has at least been able to give UC two reliable running backs. Now Tion Green will carry a larger load. That might end up being a good thing since he has been the more effective runner (559 yards, 4.7 YPC), but depth behind him is scarce.
As for the passing game, its not a certainty that Gunner Kiel will start yet again.
Tuberville said he is not sure whether Gunner Kiel will start at QB this week for #UC— Tom Groeschen (@TomGroeschen) November 8, 2016
After throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns against East Carolina, Kiel has done little to separate himself from Hayden Moore and Ross Trail. He has thrown for a total of 318 yards and two scores while completing 57.6 percent of his pass attempts the last two weeks. Those are the types of numbers any of the three UC quarterbacks could produce and as Tommy Tuberville showed earlier this season by starting Trail, a game-time decision about the man under center is not out of the question.
Whoever ends up slinging the ball needs to get more players involved. Devin Gray caught seven passes for 105 yards as he continued his breakout year against BYU. At this point, as the team leader in receptions (46) and yards (668) it is no longer crazy to say that he is the No. 1 receiver on the roster, even if Nate Cole (44 receptions, 439 yards, 4 TDs) and Kahlil Lewis (38 receptions, 490 yards, 5 TDs) are still talented pass-catchers themselves.
What will go a long way in determining UC’s fate on Saturday is how well the offense can sustain drives and how many possessions it can get. UC is currently second to last in the AAC in time of possession, averaging roughly 26 minutes per game. Against BYU, the Bearcats had five of their 10 drives go for less than 10 yards, lasting less than two minutes each time as well. That put a ton of pressure on the defense and also continued the trend it started during the Temple game, when they didn’t go farther than five yards on any drive in the second half.
There will be less of a challenge for UC when it lines up on defense, that is unless offensive ineptitude forces the Bearcat defenders on the field for more than half the game, depleting their energy and effectiveness. UCF is No. 63 in offensive S&P+, which is 18 spots higher than UC, but still not all that impressive. Even in their 37-6 rout of Tulane last weekend, the Knights managed only 297 yards of total offense, with the defense scoring three touchdowns itself. Once again, UCF can defend like crazy.
When it comes to their offensive gameplan, the Knights run more than pass, leaning on a number of ball carriers to move the ball. Dontravious Wilson has been the most utilized back, rushing for 403 yards and eight scores. However, freshman Jawon Hamilton (334 yards, 2 TDs) has gotten 87 carries and Adrian Killins has produced 310 yards and three scores on 34 attempts.
The landscape at quarterback has shifted for UCF this season, as incumbent starter Justin Holman was supplanted by freshman McKenzie Milton. The 5’11” thrower from Hawaii has shown flashes of passing ability, throwing for 317 yards and three scores against UConn. He also has been able to escape for yardage on the ground with 105 yards and three touchdowns as a runner. However, last week he completed only 9-of-20 pass attempts for 85 yards and an interception, so growing pains persist.
That could be the key to UC’s defensive strategy. Zach Edwards’ interception in the second quarter against BYU was the 15th of the season for the Bearcats, which is tied for the second-most in the country. Its unfortunate that the offense has not been able to capitalize on those miscues frequently but it has still been nice to see UC be more aggressive when playing the ball.
However, UC will be without its best ballhawk this week in safety Tyrell Gilbert, who suffered a knee injury against BYU. That puts pressure on not only Edwards and the rest of the usual suspects in the secondary, but on reserves like Davin Pierce, Perry Young and Malik Clements.
But UC’s main focus still has to be the run game and last week, against BYU’s Jamaal Williams, the front seven did a decent job of holding up, limiting Williams to 3.7 yards per carry. Although BYU finished with 207 rushing yards as a team, that may have had more to do with the 37 minutes the Cougars had the ball than a weakness with the UC run defense. Continuing to be stingy up front will be critical against a less dynamic UCF offense.
Cincinnati showed against Temple that it does not play well on the road against good defensive teams. That is exactly the trap it is walking into in Orlando this weekend. The rumors and unrest swirling around Tuberville have got to be taking a toll on this team mentally, just as the offense’s ineffective play has fatigued the defense. With two key playmakers out, UC is even more hamstrung and that makes the likelihood that the Bearcats will win, even against a team it pounded 52-7 last season, extremely small.