So far, UCF Football’s season has been very aesthetically pleasing. It’s been full of fast plays, spread offenses and passes flying through the sky so fancy-free. For the lack of better terms, this season has been very pretty, very pristine.
This week, it’s time to get dirty. It is time to get deep into the muck as Saturday’s contest at Navy figures to be a smash-mouth affair won in the trenches. You can almost hear John Facenda’s voice hovering over this showdown. This will be a long day at the office for the Knights, especially for their defense as it tries to slow down the Midshipmen’s patented triple-option offense.
“I’m not expecting to come out walking the same,” said UCF defensive lineman Jamiyus Pittman. “I’m laying it all out on the line. Whatever for the W.”
The 5-0 Knights and the 5-1 Midshipmen will meet inside Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium at 3:30 p.m. Saturday from Annapolis, Md.
- CBS Sports Network
- Play-by-play: John Sadak, who has called myriad sports for TV and radio outlets such as WestwoodOne, CBS, ESPN, FOX and others. He has been the voice of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, the New York Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate, since 2013.
- Analyst: Randy Cross, a three-time Super Bowl champion and College Football Hall of Famer. Cross began his broadcast career with CBS in 1989 and has spent almost 25 years with the network.
- Reporter: Sheehan Stanwick-Burch has been with CBS Sports Network since its 2002 debut. A four-time All-American at Georgetown in lacrosse, she is CBSSN’s lead analyst in women’s lacrosse.
UCF and Navy have never faced off on the gridiron before.
Three Things You Should Know
.Scott Frost leads the preparation: The Knights have been practicing against the triple option here and there since spring ball. At that time, they still had two option offenses on their schedule — Navy and Georgia Tech. It is extremely difficult to replicate what is an extremely unorthodox offense today, but the Knights have a bit of a secret weapon: their head coach. Frost knows a lot about the option because he orchestrated it while he was Nebraska’s quarterback in the 1990s. Fast-forward to 2017, Frost has been acting as the scout team quarterback in the Knights’ practices this week, running the option against men 20-plus years his junior while wearing an unstrapped helmet.
Just picture that.
“I love option football,” Frost said. “You know, I lived it. I feel like option quarterbacks now are kind of like giant pandas: They only exist in zoos and military academies now.”
Said linebacker Shaquem Griffin about his head coach: “It’s kind of exciting to see him running. You’re not going to get a better look than with Coach Frost in there. … When you see Coach Frost outrunning you, that means you’re doing something wrong.”
Respect: Navy obviously can’t recruit like many other FBS programs, but head coach Ken Niumatalolo has turned his program into a top-25 power, and the admiration Frost has for his counterpart this weekend is unmistakable.
“I think Kenny is one of the good guys in this business,” Frost said Monday. “I think everything those kids who play there stand for are the right things about being a college athlete and living in this country. I have a ton of respect for them. But we’re going to go up there and try to beat them.”
6-0?: A victory this weekend might be the Knights’ toughest triumph in 2017 to date. But that victory will be made a little sweeter by the fact that it would give the program its first-ever 6-0 start. UCF’s current 5-0 start is its best since 1998. The Knights haven’t achieved a six-game winning streak at any point in a season since 2013.
Navy Coming In
The Midshipmen will enter their Homecoming game in a sour mood following last week’s loss at Memphis, which knocked them out of the top 25. Still, Navy sits atop the West Division in the American Athletic Conference at 3-1, a half-game ahead of the Tigers. Thus, Saturday’s meeting in Annapolis will pit the two leaders of the AAC against one another.
When UCF Has the Ball
UCF Offense: Score first. The Knights haven’t had a problem putting up points this season, and them doing so right away Saturday will be crucial. An early lead would take Navy out of its comfort zone where they want to run the ball 60-plus times and instead force them to air it out more. The Midshipmen have thrown 49 passes all season long.
“If you’re ahead, they play a different type of game,” Frost said of Navy. “… Obviously, if we’re ahead, I’m not excited about going fast and giving them the ball right back so they can do it right over again. But if we’re behind, we need to get moving and try to get some points on the board. It’s going to be a chess match depending on how the game unfolds.”
UCF has scored first in every game this season except at Maryland, where the Terrapins got on the board with an opening field goal. The Knights then tallied the next 21 points. Navy is 53-9 when scoring first under Niumatalolo.
Navy Defense: Force turnovers. This is obviously key for both defenses. The Knights know they probably won’t see as many offensive possessions as they would like, so their defense will need to give them a few more by gaining some takeaways. Similarly, Navy’s defense isn’t good enough to truly shut down UCF’s prolific O, so forcing multiple turnovers is a must for them. Unfortunately for the Midshipmen, they have created just six turnovers in six games and have a turnover margin of -5, which is second-worst in the AAC.
Conversely, the Knights have a turnover margin of +8 and own the nation’s fourth-best average turnover margin at 1.60.
When Navy Has the Ball
Navy Offense: You know what they are going to do. If you have ever watched Navy football — or really, football from any of the service academies — you know how they come at their opponents. Option offense used to be the go-to strategy in college football. Now, it’s kind of a unicorn, as Frost insinuated. But thanks also in part to Niumatalolo’s tutelage, the Midshipmen have gained an advantage over many of their opponents, who are simply unfamiliar with how to stop this antiquated attack.
Led by quarterback Zach Abey, who is averaging almost 170 yards on the ground per game, Navy wants to get itself into a lot of third-and-shorts and wear down the opposition. They want to control the game with their deliberate pace and basically play defense through their offense by shortening the game. UCF knows this. Everyone knows it. You’ve just got to stop it, and that’s much easier said than done.
UCF Defense: Cliches are actually valuable. You hear defensive players mention how they need to stay disciplined, trust their keys, follow their assignments prior to many games. Often times, that’s just bland coachspeak. However, those elements are priceless here. The Knights need to do all of that to beat Navy. Griffin said trust will also have a role.
“You have to be able to trust your teammates around you because if you’re out one gap, that’s a gap unaccounted for and that could be the gap that could
lead to a touchdown,” the senior linebacker said. “… It’s no doubt in my mind that when it comes to this Saturday, gaps are going to be filled.”
The Midshipmen don’t employ the most athletic or explosive offense, but they are experts at exploiting defenses that overpursue or are out of position. They can find those cracks and rush through them for big plays. This Saturday will show us how disciplined the Knights’ defense really is.
Line: The Knights opened as a 6.5-point favorite and have risen slightly to a 7.5-point favorite. The over-under is 65. That opened at 65.5.
Weather: Navy will carry out its homecoming under very friendly, mostly sunny skies Saturday. Kickoff temperature should be in the mid-70s with a light wind out of the east.
Pick: The Knights currently lead the FBS in points per game (50.6) and have the nation’s largest margin of victory (33.8). But most of those numbers were compiled against spread offenses. Navy, on the other hand, wants to grind everything out and keep UCF’s offense sidelined for upwards of 40 minutes. With fewer possessions than usual, don’t expect another 50-point outburst from the Knights. Navy’s last five games have all been decided by 10 points or fewer, and I think we’ll see more of the same this weekend. This will be UCF’s first real 60-minute test of the year, and it will be interesting to see how they respond when placed in a situation they have yet to face: Playing in a close game in the fourth quarter.
UCF 35, Navy 27