How UCF turned around the 2021 season

Photo courtesy of UCF Athletics Communications.

Five weeks ago, UCF and Knight Nation were in apocalypse mode. The Knights had already suffered a heartbreaking defeat on the road to Louisville and had lost star quarterback Dillon Gabriel for the foreseeable future. They then followed that up with an inexplicable loss to a winless Navy team, one of UCF’s worst defeats in years.

With an astounding number of injuries piling up and UCF sitting at 2-2, debate had quickly shifted to whether the Knights were even capable of getting to a bowl game.

Just over a month later, that question was answered as UCF defeated Tulane in a tight home contest to improve to 6-3 and become bowl eligible. With a whole quarter of the schedule to spare.

The Knights are 4-1 since that Navy loss, demonstrating a level of resilience often reserved for championship teams.

“We’ve had some ups and downs. We were really close to winning a couple others, we’ve had some tough losses,” Gus Malzahn said after Saturday’s game. “We’ve got champions. I’m just so blessed that I inherited this bunch of players.”

So how did UCF do it? This team was on the brink but has managed to salvage what looked like a 5-7 or 6-6 campaign into what will likely now be at worse 8-4. There are a few main factors at play.

A dramatically improved defense

The most obvious shift in UCF’s identity over the course of the season has been the emergence of the defense into a truly elite unit. Following the Navy game, the Knights were allowing 30.3 points per game. Bethune-Cookman was the only opponent that had been held to under 30 points all season.

Things look starkly different since. In the five games since that loss, UCF is allowing just 19.2 points per game. It’s been a month since a team put up more than 10 points on this defense, and the Tulane win marked the first time since 2014 that the Knights held three straight opponents to 10 points or less.

It took some time for things to shape up, but opposing offenses are now largely helpless against UCF. The secondary has become an effective unit after an up-and-down start to the season. Bryson Armstrong, after a few rough early season performances, has settled into becoming a major impact player. And the defensive line simply tears opponents to shreds.

“Our defense is growing. You’ve seen it each week,” Malzahn said. “We’re tackling well, we’re putting pressure on the quarterback.”

Mikey Keene has settled in

With Gabriel still out, UCF has turned to true freshman quarterback Mikey Keene. As this fanbase has seen with McKenzie Milton and Gabriel, the freshman QB experience is a bit of a rollercoaster. Keene had plenty of rough moments in his early starts, with quick flashes of potential mixed in.

As time has gone on, the rough moments have shrunk and the flashes of greatness have grown. In UCF’s last two games, Keene has thrown for a combined 458 yards and seven touchdowns to one interception. After attempting few passes for more than a few yards downfield earlier in the season, he had two throws that went for 50+ yards against Tulane alone.

He already has more passing touchdowns than Milton did as a freshman and a significantly better completion rate than Gabriel’s freshman season.

The offense as a whole still has had some dramatic swings throughout the season (like putting up just 14 points at home a week after dropping 49 on the road) but Keene’s growing confidence and reduction in mistakes has made all the difference for the Knights.

Injuries don’t last forever

Another obvious factor in UCF turning around the season is key players trickling back in from injuries. Ricky Barber and Tatum Bethune returning have made a massive difference for the defense. Isaiah Bowser has helped stabilize the offense after missing the Knights’ loss to the Midshipmen. Star receiver Jaylon Robinson will likely be back against SMU after missing every game since Louisville. Even Gabriel – by far the most important of the missing players – could soon be back.

It’s clear now that UCF at full strength could have been a force in the AAC. Even with the many injuries, the Knights are still 6-3 with a legitimate chance of winning out and sit at 3rd in the conference standings.

The last real test is SMU, who is coming off back-to-back losses and dealing with speculation that its coach could be leaving soon. If UCF really pulls this off and gets from 3-3 to 9-3, this team will go down as one of the most resilient in program history.

With much of both sides of the ball expected back in 2022 and the Knights currently holding their best recruiting class ever (and highest rated in all of the Group of Five), the Gus Malzahn Era is truly just getting started.

About Christian Simmons 148 Articles
Christian Simmons is the founder and editor of Knight Sports Now. You can follow him on Twitter at @ByCASimmons.