Can the Bearcats Dethrone the UCF Knights before a National Audience?

The 4-1 UCF Knights are currently ranked #18 in the country. Their lone loss was to Pitt, which occurred as time expired; the Panthers completed a two-point conversion to win 35-34 in a very strange road game. The Knights also have a quality win over Stanford.

Since Scott Frost took their program to unimaginable heights (and an undefeated “national championship” season), the Knights have remained the team to beat in the East Division of the American Athletic Conference. UC is also in the East Division. Fortunately or unfortunately, the road to the AAC Championship Game always seems to pass through UCF. Friday night, however, at least the Bearcats face them in the friendly confines of Nippert Stadium. The game will air on ESPN at 8 pm.

In year’s past, UCF was powered by great QB play. This season is no different. On the year, true freshman #11 Dillon Gabriel is 74-120 for 1,338 yards, 14 TDs, and just 2 interceptions. The kid is playing like a video-game-cheat-code. Standing 6-foot tall and weighing just 185 pounds, Gabriel is not the biggest guy. A three-star prospect out of Hawaii…and a graduate of the same high school as McKenzie Milton, he was rated as the #27 pro style QB in his 2019 recruiting class. The 2018 Gatorade Hawaii High School Player of the Year is described by many as “unflappable.” The one good thing for Friday’s contest is the UC secondary needn’t worry about his legs. Gabriel is not a dual threat quarterback – the Cats simply have to worry about his arm.

Against Pitt on a big stage, the young Gabriel struggled early. How will he handle the hostile environment of Nippert Stadium? At night?

Senior #9 Adrian Killins, Jr. is an undersized speedster at running back with great hands out of the backfield. The Knights also have an array of weapons at wide receiver. Junior #13 Gabriel Davis already has 500 yards receiving and eight touchdowns. Given Dillon Gabriel’s monster QB numbers, it may come as no surprise that UCF is #1 in the country in total offense, hanging 49 points per game.

Defensively, the Knights remains much the same as last season – an opportunistic group geared towards getting the ball back to the explosive UCF offense. Ranked the #37 defense, the Knights give up an average of 4.23 yards per play and 324 yards per game. The Knights are great at getting teams off the field, ranked #13 in stopping third down conversions. UCF is 32nd in turnover margin. Senior linebacker #44 Nate Evans stands out on their defensive unit; he is all over the field with 29 tackles so far.

Strangely, however, UCF is a paltry 102nd in first down defense, which means the Bearcats should be prepared to strike early. The Knights are also 78th in red zone defense, giving up points nearly 85% of the time.

For UC to win, the Bearcats have to grind this game out relying on our triumvirate of reliable running backs (Warren-Doaks-Thomas). The Bearcats have the homefield advantage of Nipp at Night in primetime. Last year against UCF, all world RB Mike Warren II got banged up, and as soon as that happened, the offense sputtered. Look for Warren, Doaks, and Thomas to run the ball a lot. UCF has the 38th rated rush defense, giving up 3.48 yards per rush and just three rushing touchdowns on the season. So, the question that must be resolved Friday night…

Can the young and inexperienced Bearcats offensive line hold up and create enough openings for UC to control the tempo and slow this game down?

UCF is always a tough matchup for the Bearcats. Homefield advantage will help. However, I begrudgingly expect the Knights to come out ahead, 35-28. Let’s hope I am wrong!

By Andy Smith

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