Six Thoughts from UCF’s win over East Carolina
1. When was the last time Knight Nation went into a game realistically expecting UCF to be blown out? I actually started thinking about this leading up to the game against ECU, as I read various Pirate sports sites and fan blogs to get a vibe of what their expectations were. And the pretty unanimous take was: UCF is going to crush us. Let’s please just try to keep it respectable.
And it got me thinking. When was the last time we genuinely expected UCF to get blown out? I don’t know if there’s a bigger testament to where this program is at right now than that. No, the Knights don’t win every game, and there have been times over the last few years where I certainly felt a loss was on the table before a game. But when was the last time I actually thought “Team X is going to crush UCF. Let’s please just try to keep it respectable?”
I’m sure the answer is different for everyone, but for me, we’ve got to go back almost four years.
It has to be back in 2016 when UCF went on the road to play Houston. The Cougars had just won the Peach Bowl the year before and, despite a couple tough losses that showed they weren’t the same team, I still remember expecting them to thrash a Knights team that was just 4-3 and coming off a battle against UConn.
Well UCF didn’t get crushed, instead blowing a big lead to lose by a touchdown, and the Knights did come close to getting blown out a few times later that season. But that’s the most recent time I can remember going into a game thinking this team had no chance. More than 1,400 days ago.
OK. Back to stuff that actually happened last weekend and not four years ago.
2. That’s two games in a row now where UCF played awful for a quarter and it didn’t mean a thing. I mean that first quarter was rough. From allowing an ECU score on the opening drive of the game to committing more false start penalties in 15 minutes than some teams have committed in their 100+ year histories, it was not a fun moment.
But, once again, it didn’t matter. The Knights still went 100 yards and scored on their false start-filled drive. The defense recovered a couple fumbles to keep the Pirates from building any real momentum. And just like that, UCF rolled into halftime with a 27-7 lead.
I can’t wait to see what this team looks like when it has four great quarters in a game. But let’s make one thing clear: this stuff has got to stop now.
It’s fine to come out of halftime flat against an awful Georgia Tech squad or need a quarter to get settled in against an ECU team that hasn’t seen a bowl since the Obama Administration. But let me tell you right now: It’s not fine against Memphis. It’s not fine against Cincinnati.
Hopefully, these are just some early-season adjustments to get worked out. I don’t exactly expect the Knights to commit four straight false starts again any time soon. But it’s a much scarier hypothetical against a team that can actually take advantage of those mistakes.
If UCF came out like that against Memphis, it could be a 24-7 score by the time the second quarter rolls around. The Knights can go on to play great on both sides of the ball for three quarters, but that’s a much tougher deficit to overcome than East Carolina going up by seven.
Hopefully, UCF shows against Tulsa that it can play top-notch football from start to finish.
3. Here is my weekly Dillon Gabriel Appreciation Post. I mean come on. We all knew this offseason that, beyond making a sophomore jump, the big change we needed to see from Gabriel for this team to achieve its goals was better play away from home.
Last year, he completed just 54 percent of his passes on the road and threw 10 touchdowns to seven interceptions. That’s not exactly ideal and was a fairly shocking drop for a player who was incredibly sharp in his own stadium.
But 2020 is a different year. Through two road games, Gabriel has amassed 825 yards and eight touchdowns to just one interception, all on an impressive completion rate of 67 percent. Some people are jumping at the fact that these two games came against weak opponents, and I’m not necessarily expecting a seven-touchdown performance against Memphis now or something.
But you just can’t discount what he’s doing. He struggled on the road against bad teams last year, like when he threw two picks against Tulsa or completed just half his throws against Temple. If that trend is really over and done with, then the sky’s the limit for UCF.
4. This game showed that UCF just really doesn’t have any regional rivals that are worth a damn right now, and that’s unfortunate. There was a time back in Conference USA when this would’ve been a heated matchup. But East Carolina having struggled to field a team that can even crack .500 for the better part of a decade now put an end to that.
And part of me wonders, is USF next? Obviously the War On I-4 was always a much, much stronger rivalry, but we’re going on Year 3 here where the Bulls just can’t field a team capable of competing with the Knights.
And that’s really the worst part of being in the AAC right now. UCF just doesn’t have any regional rivals that can make for an interesting game. We have to go all the way to Cincinnati or Memphis (or Tulsa) to find a team that can actually compete with the Knights.
I know this is an unpopular take, but I really do hope both USF and ECU get their acts together eventually. The Knights deserve some fun games that are driving distance.
5. I’m starting to get the feeling that Knight Nation has become a little spoiled when it comes to the team’s uniforms. I mean, people on Twitter were legitimately mad that the Knights were wearing the same helmet two weeks in a row. As someone who was born and raised in Orlando and been to games since they were played at the Citrus Bowl, this is honestly hilarious.
UCF wore ONE helmet from the time I was 10 years old to when I was 16. We saw seven unique helmet designs last year alone. I think it’s OK if the Knights decide to break out the same helmet for back-to-back games every now and then.
Especially when it’s that beautiful gold lid that’s easily one of the best and most on-brand helmets this team has ever sported.
6. Holding myself accountable, I definitely underestimated UCF’s defense. If you read last week’s column, then you know that I had concerns about how UCF would contain an ECU offense that returned an excellent starting quarterback and numerous weapons. I predicted that the Pirates would likely score into the 30’s and it could be a bad look for the Knights.
Well, I was wrong. ECU did get to 28 points, but three of those scores came in garbage time as the defense never let up for most of the game. Richie Grant snatched the first of what I’m sure will be many picks this season, the Knights scooped up three Pirate fumbles and simply kept ECU from ever having a chance at winning this game.
Holton Ahlers, the quarterback I was so concerned about, did manage to throw three touchdown passes. But there was the aforementioned pick by Grant and the fact that Ahlers was held to an abysmal completion rate of 48 percent.
As usual, it wasn’t always pretty. But the defense got the job done.
Three thoughts on what’s next for UCF
1. Now that I’ve finished apologizing for being wrong about last week’s game being a tough matchup, let’s talk about why this week’s game is a tough matchup. I don’t care what these teams look like on paper. I don’t care who has more talent on either side of the ball or what they’ve done in their previous games this season.
Bad things happen when UCF plays Tulsa.
This has been the case literally through my entire life. USF may have been the big rival, but the Golden Hurricane were the team that actually wrecked the Knights’ season on an annual basis back in Conference USA.
Tulsa is even UCF’s most recent home loss back in 2016, and I don’t need to remind you what happened last year. All in all, the Knights are just 3-8 all time against the Golden Hurricane.
Should UCF be expected to win on Saturday? Of course. By a lot. And Gabriel basically admitting he’s been waiting a year to get payback for last season’s loss is definitely encouraging.
But bad things happen when UCF plays Tulsa.
2. UCF’s amazing home atmosphere is going to need some asterisks this year. And that’s really unfortunate. The Bounce House has been an incredibly tough environment since it opened in 2007, but that status has been taken to new heights in recent years.
The Knights have won 21 straight at home, with the last loss coming all the way back in 2016. And there have been plenty of fans to see that streak grow, as 40,000 or more of them have shown up for a record 16 straight games.
So basically, this year needs some asterisks. How is it fair to dock UCF’s fans for no longer showing up 40,000 strong when only 11,000 are allowed in for each game? And how much harder will it be for the Knights to keep this winning streak alive when the environment simply won’t be nearly as difficult for opposing teams to overcome as usual?
There’s a lot about this pandemic that sucks, and it interrupting the Bounce House’s golden age is really, really unfortunate.
But at the end of the day, this is an absurdly talented team. Maybe in November we’ll be talking about how UCF overcame all of this to be riding a 25-game home winning streak.
3. One thing is certain after a few weeks of play: There’s a clear Big Three in Florida. And we all know who is a part of it. My thoughts on Miami and how many years in a row people can possibly cry “The U is back!” before they stop deluding themselves are well documented. But the Hurricanes seem the closest to legit right now that they’ve been in a decade-plus thanks to an infusion of AAC talent.
UF showed that it’s still one of the best teams in the SEC. Add that together and we’ve got three Florida teams ranked No. 11 or better.
And I want to see them play.
There’s an excellent chance that all three of these teams end up in a New Year’s Six Bowl. And shame on the Playoff Committee if they don’t match them up. Just think of the TV draw for a UCF-UF Peach Bowl. Of course, it’s easy from my perspective to say that I want the Knights to have a big in-state matchup.
But this transcends what Knight Nation wants. The whole country would tune in to see UCF take on Miami or UF in a major bowl. Sure, half of them would be doing so because they’re expecting the Knights to lose by 40, but still! Proving the doubters wrong is where this team thrives.
If UCF, UF and Miami all end up in New Year’s Six Bowls and the Committee protects both the Hurricanes and Gators from a game against the Knights, then we’ll know exactly how broken this system really is. I hope they make the right choice.