Soon enough, UCF Football will kick off its 2018 season. Last year, the Knights finished 13-0, won the AAC, beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl and claimed a National Championship. Now, a new coaching staff led by Josh Heupel will try to guide a talented roster to another big year. Every Saturday until the season starts, we’ll be breaking down a different opponent on UCF’s schedule.
Week 11 (Nov. 10, Time and TV TBA): vs. Navy Midshipmen
Last Year: 7-6 (4-4 American)
Last Meeting: UCF 31, Navy 21 (Oct. 21, 2017)
All-time series: UCF leads 1-0
The second of three November home games for UCF comes on Veteran’s Day weekend against Navy. This will be the first-ever meeting between the two programs in Orlando and second meeting overall. The Midshipmen gave the Knights one of their toughest games of the season in 2017 and it would be no surprise to see them put up a good fight again in 2018. Having the best coach in the conference, Ken Niumatalolo, and a tricky triple-option offense will always make Navy a threat to win the AAC West.
Niumatalolo is entering his 12th year with the Midshipmen, and he’ll do so with a clear answer at quarterback. Junior Malcolm Perry, who was a slot back early last year, took over the quarterback job during the season and was highly impressive. He ran for 282 yards and four touchdowns in a 43-40 win over SMU, 250 and one in a close loss to Army and 114 and two in a 49-7 Military Bowl win over Virginia. He went down with an injury before that game against Virginia was over, but clearly did enough to impress his coach.
Niumatalolo feels so good about Perry that he is moving Zach Abey, who played quarterback for much of last season, to wide receiver in 2018. Abey ran for 1,413 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, which means the Midshipmen have two 1,000-yard rushers coming back in him and Perry. However, there are other questions in the backfield. Senior fullback Anthony Gargiulo returns after rushing for 423 yards last year, but he is one of just two returners aside from Perry and Abey that ran for over 100 in 2017. There doesn’t seem to be a clear frontrunner to start at slot back for Navy heading into the season.
The passing game is never a focus due to the triple-option system, so the fact that none of the team’s current receivers caught a pass last season isn’t a huge deal. Navy quarterbacks attempted just 102 passes in 2017. By comparison, UCF’s McKenzie Milton attempted 119 in the final three games of the season. Considering how frequently the Midshipmen run the ball, the offensive line has to be strong. This year’s group consists of the two starting tackles from last year, as well as upperclassmen at the center and guard positions.
The Navy defense gave up 26.3 points per game last season, down from the 31 per game it allowed in 2016. The unit held UCF, the No. 1 scoring offense in the nation, to a season-low 31 points and played well enough to win in three of the team’s six losses. The defensive line hasn’t been overly impressive in the last few years, but junior Jackson Pittman returns at nose guard while defensive ends Jarvis Polu, Josh Webb and Anthony Villalobos are all expected to see significant time.
The linebacker group is undergoing massive changes after losing three seniors from last year’s team, including Micah Thomas. Thomas led the team with 81 tackles and three interceptions in 2017, so replacing that kind of production will be a tall task. Senior Hudson Sullivan is back for one more year, but he is returning from an injury that held him out of spring practice.
The Midshipmen lost both of their starting cornerbacks, but senior Jarid Ryan is moving to the outside from safety. Sean Williams, a fellow senior, should anchor the secondary from the safety position after tallying 76 tackles last season (good for second on the team). Aside from Juan Hailey, another senior safety, the team is relying on youth to fill the rest of the open positions in the defensive backfield.
Navy’s special teams unit was nothing special last year, but both its kicker and punter are back. Bennett Moehring only made eight of his 15 kicks last year while Owen White averaged 40.5 yards per punt.
With Niumatalolo leading the charge, Navy should continue to be one of the AAC’s more dangerous teams. The Midshipmen have some heavy competition at the top of the AAC West in Memphis and Houston, but given their recent history, there’s no sense in counting them out.
Perry, despite his injury, should benefit from a full offseason as the team’s quarterback. The option offense isn’t usually easy to stop and the defense is typically solid enough to win games. Even with a schedule that includes an early matchup with Memphis and a non-conference slate that features Air Force, Notre Dame and Army, Navy should easily achieve bowl eligibility and contend for the top spot in its division.
Final Thoughts: UCF didn’t struggle too much with the triple-option last year, but did give up a few big passing plays that allowed Navy to stay in the game. The placement of this game on Navy’s schedule should help Josh Heupel’s team. In the weeks before their trip to Orlando, the Midshipmen face Notre Dame in San Diego and Cincinnati on the road. That’s a lot of traveling in three weeks, which is something that could benefit the Knights. UCF likely has the more talented team regardless, but it’s rare for teams to roll through Navy. The Midshipmen haven’t lost a game by more than 10 points since the 2016 AAC Championship Game and over 40 percent of their games under Niumatalolo have been of the one-possession variety. The Knights will get all they can handle, but should be able to emerge victorious.
Win Probability: 65%