Well, this is it. After an up-and-down first half of the season, it’s finally do or die time for UCF Football.
The Knights, who will take on AAC East foe Temple on the road tonight, have already had many of their goals wiped away. But a third defeat in five games would essentially be the nail in the coffin for the 2019 season.
The loss to Pitt was discouraging. The loss to Cincinnati was devastating. But losing again on the road, to another conference opponent, is simply an unacceptable result for a program with this much talent.
UCF has struggled heavily on the road this season. At home, the Knights are 4-0 and averaging 51 points per game. But away from the Bounce House, they’re just 1-2 and putting up only 35.3 points a game.
Of course, a large part of this has been the play of quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who looks the part of a transcendent talent in his own stadium and like a lost freshman on the road. But as I’ve detailed before, this isn’t on Gabriel.
At this point he’s pretty much unquestionably UCF’s future. But that doesn’t mean he has to be the present. In both of UCF’s road losses, Gabriel struggled from the outset and coach Josh Heupel refused to pull him. This was especially glaring against Cincinnati, as Gabriel threw multiple picks, the game slowly slipped away, and Heupel kept a healthy Darriel Mack on the sidelines.
If Gabriel struggles again tonight, the coaching staff must make a change. This season is bigger than Gabriel’s development. And there does seem to be some small hope that this could happen if he runs into trouble.
Against East Carolina last weekend, Mack was brought in to run the ball on a few third-and-short situations, and also got some throwing opportunities on those drives. Of course, in classic Heupel fashion, this was effective for about one drive before ECU realized the playcall would be the same every time and Mack was just in to run to pick up a first down.
But at least the team is finally looking at ways to involve Mack. If Gabriel struggles early against Temple, he doesn’t have to be done for the night. Why not give Mack a drive to throw the defense off-balance?
These decisions are tough, and I certainly don’t blame Heupel for not wanting to bench his star freshman (not to mention that there have been plenty of other contributing factors to those defeats, such as the shocking number of penalties committed by the defense). But this is it. If UCF loses this game, the season is lost. The Knights will likely lose again somewhere down the road, and a Cure Bowl appearance will be pretty much all that’s left to root for.
If the Knights win, everything is still possible. The team would be 6-2 with a much more relaxing schedule to close out the year, and just a couple of Cincinnati losses away from a conference championship appearance. That’s certainly preferable to being just another 5-3 Group of Five team, not even worth a tweet or an article.
It’s now or never for the Knights.