Each week during the football season, a few staff contributors will answer five questions regarding the upcoming game ahead. It’s a way to get the staff to come together as well as the rest of Knights Nation, to see if they agree or disagree with the crew at BGB.
In our fourth roundtable of the football season, Jeff Sharon, Jeremy Brener, Eric Lopez, Brian Murphy, and Andrew Gluchov take their seats at the roundtable to answer questions about the UCF Knights and their matchup with the Cincinnati Bearcats.
1) The Knights have not been a home underdog in four years. What do they need to do in order to pull off the upset?
Jeff Sharon (@Jeff_Sharon): Two things: (1) Stop the run. Cincy lives by the run with Desmond Ridder and Gerrid Doaks. If they can turn Ridder into a one-dimensional player, keep him in the pocket and force him to throw, that’s good for UCF. And (2) Attack the whole field on offense. This is the best defense UCF has faced yet - top 20 in the nation against both the pass and the run. Opportunities will be hard to come by, so Dillon Gabriel cannot waste them.
Jeremy Brener (@JeremyBrener): Test the Bearcats. Cincinnati has won every game by two touchdowns or more, but they haven’t faced an opponent that will test them on defense quite like the Knights will. This is a difficult game for the Knights to win, but they can do so if they put a lot of points on the board. Force the Bearcats to win in a shootout.
Eric Lopez (@EricLopezELO): Win the third-down battle. Cincinnati is 17th in the nation third-down defense at 31 percent and 14th in third-down offense with a 52 percent conversion clip. UCF defense’s needs to get off the field on third downs and the offense has to keep drives alive. UCF will also have to be stellar in the red zone. Last year, UCF scored one touchdown in six red-zone trips at Cincinnati. The Bearcats have given up only six touchdowns in 19 red-zone trips against them.
Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy): No team has scored more than 20 points against Cincinnati, so if you’re looking for things UCF must accomplish, that’s an easy start. I think our Anthony Lenahan clearly identified what the Knights need to do offensively: spread the field, use the boundaries, find the safety and get the ball out quickly to your assortment of weapons.
On defense, I’ll let defensive tackle Cam Goode’s answer from Tuesday stand as the best insight: “We have to stop the quarterback. That’s it. We stop the quarterback, we stop the run, it’s over with.”
Cincinnati has outscored its last four opponents 184-50. And to Goode’s point, quarterback Desmond Ridder ran for 398 yards and nine touchdowns in those four games.
Andrew Gluchov (@StatBoyDrew): UCF needs to play a near flawless game. They don't have to be perfect, but they need to keep the Bearcats on their heels. Cincinnati is the total package. That team is like a fine wine and has played better as the season has progressed. The Bearcats have a defense that has suffocated strong offenses like Memphis and SMU. Oh yeah, and Desmond Ridder has really blossomed at quarterback.
2) If UCF wins this game, which Knight(s) will be the reason why?
Jeff: It will have to be the defensive front. Like I said above, UCF absolutely must make Desmond Ridder a passer in this game. So the up-front guys - Cam Goode, Anthony Montalvo, Landon Woodson, Stephon Zayas, Noah Hancock and Josh Celiscar - have to play out of their minds in the run game. In addition, they also have to keep contain on Ridder and not let him get out of the pocket. Otherwise we’re gonna have a long night.
Jeremy: The Knights find multiple ways to move the ball on offense. Get Otis Anderson and Greg McCrae involved for different changes of pace, send the deep ball to Ryan O’Keefe and Jaylon Robinson, find Marlon Williams open on a crossing route to get a 20-yard gain. Give the Bearcats everything on the wall and hopefully something will stick.
Eric: Dillon Gabriel solves the Bearcats’ 3-3-5 scheme, protects the football and helps the offense end drives with touchdowns.
Brian: The Knights need all three levels of their defense to continue their recent run of stellar play. They need Cam Goode to continue to press the pocket and defensive end Tre’mon Morris-Brash to be the elite pass rusher he can be. They need linebackers Eriq Gilyard and Tatum Bethune to relentlessly attack, sideline to sideline. They need Richie Grant to be the all-around star that he has been this season. So much electronic ink and hot air is being spent on the matchup between UCF’s offense and Cincy’s defense. But just as crucial will be the Knights’ D and their ability to prove that their outings versus Houston and Temple were not flukes.
Andrew: The game will need to be decided in the trenches. It's the offensive line that will be under the most pressure to step up as Cincinnati took it to them last year, and Dillon Gabriel struggled with Cincy’s pressure last year. Tulsa showed that history can repeat itself. If Gabriel has time to set and survey, the Knights have a chance. They cannot play like they did against Temple.
3) What is one of the Knights’ weaknesses that could be exposed against the Bearcats?
Jeff: I still think the O-Line can be had if the Bearcats can confuse Dillon Gabriel and Matt Lee pre-snap and get pressure on him. Anthony Lenahan provided a fantastic breakdown of what happened when UCF brought the tight end into the game. If the Bearcats can pressure, that means UCF will have to go to max protection more than what they want and keep the tight end in to block. If that happens, given how good Cincy’s secondary is, it might be checkmate.
Jeremy: The Knights struggled last week on offense in one of their poorest showings of the season. They won the game convincingly because the defense gave them some short fields to work with, but I’m sure the offense was not fully pleased with their results last week against Temple. The offensive line needs to give Gabriel enough time to find his weapons.
Eric: The rush defense could get gashed by the Bearcats, who average more than 6 yards per carry. If UCF can’t slow down that running game, they may get worn down like they did in the second half of the Tulsa game.
Brian: As solid as UCF’s run defense has been over the past two weeks — only 4.1 yards per carry; zero 20-yard rushes allowed — this is a very different animal and the toughest test for those young defensive players who are getting more playing time now. We will find out just how good (or bad) this run defense is on Saturday.
Andrew: UCF's defense has stepped up well over the last two games, but they've been against a Houston team missing its best weapon and a Temple team operating with a near empty cupboard. The defense is going to be tested.
Desmond Ridder can run as well as throw and if the UCF defensive line overpursues in the pocket, he's going to tuck and run. As long as UCF continues to employ the nickel defense, there will only be two linebackers to cover the whole field. A third might be needed as a spy, which would take away a defensive back. UCF hasn't had the best success against dual-threat quarterbacks.
4) Name one Cincy player UCF needs to keep an eye on.
Jeff: Myjai Sanders. He leads the team in sacks with 5, and if he gets into the backfield, this will be a long night for Dillon Gabriel.
Jeremy: Linebacker Jarell White is the team’s leading tackler and had a big game against UCF a year ago. The then-junior picked off Dillon Gabriel and forced a fumble against the Knights and has three games with double-digit tackles this season. If the Bearcats are going to show out on defense, I’m expecting White to be a big reason why.
Eric: Desmond Ridder is by far the best dual-threat quarterback UCF will see this season. Ridder has thrown for 1,483 yards and 14 touchdowns while rushing for 521 yards and nine touchdowns. Ridder is quietly Gabriel’s biggest threat for the AAC Offensive Player of the Year honors. As Ridder goes, so goes Cincinnati.
Brian: There are stars and future NFL players all across Cincinnati’s secondary with the likes of James Wiggins, Ahmad Gardner, Coby Bryant, etc. But I’ll spotlight linebacker Jarell White.
White earned AAC Defensive Player of the Week honors and was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week for his game against East Carolina last week in which he racked up seven tackles, a sack and a pick-six. He is the head of the snake here as he leads this defense in tackles by almost 30(!) and is second in sacks and tackles for loss. He had seven tackles and picked off Dillon Gabriel in the red zone during last year’s meeting up north.
Andrew: Desmond Ridder is the easy answer, but I'm going to go with Gerrid Doaks. The Bearcats are going to have be more than the Fighting Ridders to win the game. While Doaks isn't going to blow the doors off, he has a knack for finding the end zone with seven touchdowns on the ground and another two in the air.
5) Score prediction.
Jeremy: Cincinnati 42, UCF 34
Eric: I have gone back and forth on this game. The three categories I will follow are third-down conversions, red-zone opportunities, and yards per play. I mentioned those first two earlier, and on this week’s podcast, I broke down how important that last stat is for UCF’s offense and Cincinnati’s defense. The Knights average 7.2 yards per play on offense while the Bearcats only allow 4.1 yards per play on defense. Whichever team can win at least two if not all three of those categories will win the game.
UCF 35, Cincinnati 24
Brian: As you well know by now, the Knights are a home dog for the first time since 2016 in this game. Cincy is favored by 5.5 or 6, depending on where you look. FWIW, UCF is 1-5 against the spread in its last six games while the Bearcats are 5-1 ATS over their last six. The over-under is around 63, which is a very low number for a UCF game this season. But the under feels correct here. The total in each of the past two meetings in this series was 51, and Cincinnati’s defense is only better now. It’s a defense that is stocked with talent on all three levels, and it’s complemented by a rushing offense that can both grind you down and blow you up.
And yet, I am full of hesitation because I’ve seen this UCF offense become more versatile and balanced. Dillon Gabriel is playing supremely well, and he might get to welcome back Tre Nixon this week. It feels like the Knights have a 21-point floor even against a team that hasn’t given up more than 20 points all year. The Knights’ defense doesn’t have to be perfect; just don’t allow Ridder or Gerrid Doaks to rip off 30- or 40-yard chunks. From what we’ve seen from this defense recently, I think they can do that.
Ahh, I dunno. I just can’t wait to get to the stadium and enjoy this one.
Cincinnati 28, UCF 27
Andrew: This is a hard one. Cincinnati has not seen an offense like UCF this season. UCF has a unique speed and ability to strike and score. While it wasn't on display last week, I'm confident it will be ready to go this week.
However, UCF's offense struggled against the only really good defense it faced in Tulsa. UCF built up a lead and then stalled. Unlike Tulsa, Cincinnati has an opportunistic offense to go with the defense. Make no mistake, Cincinnati has a really good defense that embarrassed Memphis and SMU.
UCF has struggled on the offensive line with consistent pass protection and this game will be decided in the trenches. I think the line is going to get beat one time too many and not give Gabriel enough time to get settled. Let's hope I'm wrong and the line plays lights out.
Cincinnati 38, UCF 31