Remember when UCF was a team that couldn’t win a game and was an easy punchline? Ahh yes, the great days of 2015. Things sure have changed since then. Now it is the Knights shining while the Bearcats are laughed at by more people than I’d like to admit.
That’s not the stage we’d like for this weekend’s showdown with the No. 25 Knights, but as the saying goes, it is a poor craftsman who blames his tools. The Bearcats will just have to use Nippert Stadium and anything on hand to attempt to challenge and ultimately upset the Knights.
That will be a tough accomplishment against this version of UCF, which routed preseason conference title contender Memphis last week, leaving blue splatter on the field of Bright House Networks Stadium where Memphis used to be. The 40-13 win announced that UCF, now 3-0, was for real and got it enough respect to sneak into the national rankings.
Last year, when UCF was merely a team hoping to make a bowl game, UC was outmatched as it was. The Knights won 24-3 at home against the Bearcats with the defense accumulating five sacks and generally making life miserable for Hayden Moore. If they are better this season, that’s scary.
It’s not great. The outlook that is. Only Temple is worse in the American Athletic Conference in terms of total offense and the Bearcats aren’t facing a cupcake in week six. UCF is second in the conference in total defense (allowing only 309.3 yards per game) and defensive S&P+, trailing USF in both categories, but just barely. The Knights succeed with a mix of pressure and effective play on third down. In fact, with opponents gaining first downs on only 21.6 percent of their third down attempts, UCF currently ranks fourth in the country in the metric. One of the teams ahead of them is Michigan and we know just how well UC fared against the Wolverines.
A good first half will be imperative for the Bearcats, who just can’t seem to stop themselves from starting poorly before rushing like mad to fix everything. That starts with the run game, which was bottled up like nobody’s business in the first half against Marshall and has generally been ineffective, even with Mike Boone healthy. The Bearcats are averaging only 3.5 yards per rush, which is the third-worst mark in the AAC.
Part of the reason the run game needs to be better is so the Bearcats don’t have to ask Hayden Moore to go out and win games. He is still the starting quarterback, but if he keeps having stretches like he had in the first half against the Thundering Herd, Moore will lose out to Ross Trail eventually. Moore’s saving grace has been a solid touchdown to interception ratio (nine to four), but he is only completing a little more than 50 percent of his pass attempts, while failing to push up his yardage total by much aside from the eruption against Navy.
Devin Gray has worked himself back into a starring role in the passing game. The senior wideout has nine receptions for 180 yards in the last two games after managing only five catches for 59 in the first three. In the meantime, Kahlil Lewis has asserted himself as the go-to target, although he had a season-low three catches for 24 yards and failed to get into the end zone for the first time this season against Marshall. The options at Moore’s disposal don’t stop there, with Thomad Geddis, JJ Pinckney, Jerron Rollins, Tyler Cogswell and Josiah Deguara all getting at least some work.
What will help the offense the most, though, is better play on the offensive line. For all his faults, Moore deserves some slack because he isn’t always given enough time to run through his reads. In the same way, Boone, Gerrid Doaks and Michael Warren are not always afforded the biggest running lanes. It will be tough against UCF’s front seven, which features defending AAC Defensive Player of the Year Shaquem Griffin, but that’s the challenge anyway.
UC’s defense is a perfect example of how numbers can be misleading. If I told you a team was No. 1 in their conference in passing defense, you’d probably think they were winning more games than they were losing, right? Well you’d be wrong. UC is only allowing 163.4 passing yards per game, which, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is the best mark in the conference, but that is more smoke and mirrors than anything. As Marshall’s Chase Litton showed last week, you can throw against the Bearcats, you just don’t always need to because the run defense has been so poor.
Even if you want to blame that all on the Navy game, you can’t. Only Tulsa and East Carolina have allowed more rushing yards among AAC teams. In fact, UC has let up at least 100 yards in four of five games this season and at least 190 in three of those. That might not be the biggest deal in the world if UCF couldn’t run, but it can. The Knights are second in the conference in yards per rush and just piled up 350 yards against Memphis. That’s even without running back Jawon Hamilton, who is out for the season with a leg injury.
Perry Young and Jaylyin Minor will get plenty of tackling opportunities in this one, but for UC to win, Marquise Copeland, Cortez Broughton and Kevin Mouhon need to shut down running lanes on the line and stop backs from getting to the edge. It will be a tough task, especially since the Knights have a mobile quarterback in McKenzie Milton, but its the task all the same.
A win on Saturday night would not only give UC its first conference victory of the season, it would be a statement win for Luke Fickell, showing that he already has this program headed in the right direction.
But I don’t need to tell you why it would be good. I’m here to tell you how the Bearcats can win. They can do that by being a little crative on offense and getting the ball to playmakers like Boone and Lewis without tacklers right next to them. They also need to show improvement against the run, block well for Moore and finally play well for all 60 minutes. Unfortunately, they haven’t done that all of that simultaneously yet, and UCF isn’t the ideal candidate to reverse the trend.
UCF 31 Cincinnati 16