After the remarkable two-year run that UCF is coming off, no one on the team is accustomed to losing. The idea of dropping two games in three weeks felt virtually impossible during the offseason, but it’s a reality the Knights now have to face.
“It’s real, real frustrating. I mean, I haven’t lost [a regular season game] since 2016,” senior linebacker Nate Evans said. “My high school, I almost went to states every year. I got a national championship at high school, so losing is not a big thing that I’m familiar with.”
Unfortunately for Evans and the rest of the team, more losses could be on the horizon if UCF continues to ignore one of its biggest strengths: quarterback depth.
The Knights’ two losses have come by a total of four points, and those defeats are certainly not only on quarterback Dillon Gabriel. But at the midway point of the season, it’s clear that the true freshman simply can’t be relied upon to perform on the road.
In three home games this year, he has thrown for 755 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions with a completion rate of 71 percent. On the road, He has 880 yards on just a 53 percent completion rate, with five touchdowns and five interceptions.
Even against FAU, he went just 7-for-19.
That’s the type of drop off that leads to an offense that sputters for whole quarters and can be held to just 24 points. But the coaching staff has been quick to defend the young QB.
“Quarterbacks are gonna get probably a little bit too much of the credit when things are going really well and probably a little bit too much of the blame,” Coach Josh Heupel said. “There’s things Dillon’s gotta do better, but there’s also things the 10 guys around him gotta do better too.”
Heupel is right, of course. Let’s not forget that Scott Frost often had to address the idea of benching McKenzie Milton in 2016 as fans clamored for Justin Holman during a late-season losing streak. And it also can’t be ignored that Gabriel is very likely UCF’s future at quarterback. Just like Milton as a freshman, he has looked electric at times, and shown the type of upside that netted him offers from Georgia and USC.
But at the end of the day, this isn’t 2016. The Knights didn’t start the year coming off an 0-12 campaign, they started with expectations of a conference championship and potential New Year’s Six Bowl appearance. Both of those goals are likely off the table now.
Starting a quarterback that maybe isn’t quite ready for the stage they’re on is commonplace in college football. But UCF is the rare team that is starting that type of player with two experienced and talented veterans standing on the sideline. Both Brandon Wimbush and Darriel Mack have started big games – and had success in those outings. But that expertise is wasting away off the field.
As Gabriel struggled on drive after drive against Cincinnati, a game that UCF simply could not afford to lose if it wanted a shot at the AAC title, Heupel refused to make a change. Darriel Mack came in for a single play when Gabriel was briefly hurt, but just handed the ball off before trotting off the field.
Heupel has not given a real explanation for these decisions, simply stating that it didn’t occur to him to use Mack after the game had concluded. This is even stranger considering that Mack was virtually a lock to be the starter this year until he broke his ankle before training camp.
And he’s shown enough in garbage time that the ankle cleary isn’t an issue. There’s also Wimbush, who is arguably one of the most experienced voices in the locker room and excelled in big games at Notre Dame. But he hasn’t seen the field for more than a play since starting the season opener.
Obviously, we can only guess at what the coaching staff’s plan is here. We don’t have all the information and there could be factors at play that aren’t public knowledge. But it sure feels like Heupel is prioritizing Gabriel’s development and getting him reps over winning games right now. If that is the case, then this may be one of the most talented rosters in college football to ever be used as a rebuilding year, but it could theoretically pay off in the long run.
But if the coaches actually believe continuing the give Gabriel every rep on the road is putting this team in a position to win, then it’s going to be a very long season for UCF.