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Round Table: The Gauntlet Begins in Greenville

Our crew previews the biggest storylines heading into UCF’s game with ECU

Photo: Derek Warden

The UCF Knights begin the latter half of their 2022 football schedule on Saturday with the school they’ve played more than any other opponent: The East Carolina Pirates.

In advance of the game, the guys are at the round able once again to discuss the biggest storylines heading into this game.

How difficult will the second half of the schedule be?

Jeff: Well, at the time of this writing, UCF is playing five of the top six teams in The American in the next six games, and UCF itself is the one other team in that top six. If the conference is good, this will be tough. On the other hand, if this is a down year for the league, we might be getting an extra home game in December.

Bryson: While they are winnable, it will indeed be more difficult on a week-to-week basis than the first half. The Knights will be playing two (as of this week) ranked teams in Tulane and Cincinnati. They also have to go outside the state of Florida for the first time. Adding onto that, they have to face one of the conference’s offensive leaders statistically in ECU and play Navy (I don’t care what their record is). It’s not a stretch to say that the Knights can win out, but it’s far from a gimme.

Andrew: It’s certainly more difficult than the first half. You have two more teams on the Revenge Tour in Cincinnati and Navy along with ECU this weekend, Memphis, and Tulane. South Florida is thrown in at the end for good measure. The Knights are in control of their own destiny. Win them all and host the conference championship game in December. Stumble and things get murky depending on how the rest of the season goes. Remember, Cincinnati and Tulane also play each other. This is where the style points in getting into the CFP rankings might play a role.

Kyle: Not to a level to deserve dubbing it “The Gauntlet”. The only true question mark on the schedule compared to UCF’s preseason outlook in my mind is really Tulane. Who had Tulane getting ranked on their bingo card? — If you raised your hand, you’re lying. Cincinnati may turn out to be just as difficult as playing Louisville was and USF and Temple certainly cancel that out while Gus Malzahn has done his part to keep the team improving. In fairness, they will be traveling more during this time of year.

Are you finally happy with where the offense is yet or nah?

Jeff: Yes.

Bryson: If by “happy,” you mean that I think the offense is at the competency level where I believe wins are at least possible, then yes. Plumlee has proven himself to be a capable quarterback that can string together back-to-back good performances and the offense has proven it can roar back from any kind of 1st half deficit it may find itself in. Like last week, I still look for consistency with this unit, and with every game they deliver the happier I’ll get.

Andrew: I asked for one complete game. They delivered. I also asked for a second. Beating Temple, even by this big margin, isn’t nearly as big of a deal as people would like it to be. There’s a reason UCF is still on the outside looking in with the polls. Since they’ve shown to be able to give us that complete game once, I’d like to see it on an opponent who has a chance for a bowl game. A win this weekend should put UCF into the top 25 leading up to the big showdown with Cincinnati.

Kyle: Do I think the Knights’ offense has proven they are capable of having all facets of the game working together offensively? — Yes . . . but offensive tackle Ryan Swoboda has even said they haven’t played their best football yet, so there’s that.

What will the defense’s biggest issue be on Saturday night?

Jeff: If Holton Ahlers gets into a rhythm, it’s going to be a problem. So far this year, the magic number appears to be 65% passing. When he hits 65%, ECU is 3-0. When he’s below that, they’re 1-3, and the only win was against Old Dominion. So the defense has to put pressure on him and get him off his spot, preferably by getting him to move to his right, since he throws lefty (which is a bit weird considering he only throws footballs with his left hand and does everything else with his right.

East Carolina v Navy
Holton Ahlers
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Bryson: I’d argue that ECU has a much more complete offense than SMU did, so the biggest issue for the defense is their ability to remain vigilant and on-guard for whatever ECU may throw at them. QB Holton Ahlers leads the AAC in completion percentage. His lead receiver Isaiah Winstead is 8th in the nation and 3rd in the AAC in receiving yards. Fellow ECU WR C.J. Johnson is 5th in the conference. This sort of prolific passing attack is something the defense has seen before in SMU.

However, the difference is they also have a prolific running back that they can turn to if the passing game stalls. Unlike SMU, ECU ranks in the top half of the conference in rushing offense, and RB Keaton Mitchell leads the conference and is 28th in the nation in rushing yards. As long as the UCF defense covers all its bases, and is ready to defend against either the run or the pass at a moment’s notice, they will be fine.

Andrew: While I like to comment about AARP member Holton Ahlers at quarterback, running back Keaton Mitchell is the guy too often forgotten about. Like Bryson mentioned above, he’s one of the top running backs in the country and he doesn’t really get talked about. We know what Ahlers is about. He slings the ball around a lot, gaining a lot of yards, but is turnover prone. Mitchell is a speedy, shifty runner that will require the defense to make sure their tackle technique is on point.

Kyle: Balance. ECU can throw the ball well. ECU can pass the ball well.

What’s your favorite memory of the UCF-ECU series that isn’t Hail Perriman?

Jeff: I’m going with last year’s game. That was a real struggle. UCF was down 16-10 with seven minutes left and scraped and clawed their way back thanks to defense, aan efficient performance by Mikey Keene, and Marc-Antony Richards coming up HUGE on that final drive with a key 4th down catch and the game-winning TD:

Bryson: Well, if I can’t go with Hail Perriman, then I guess I’ll go with the 2012 edition of the matchup that kicked off C-USA play that season AKA The Quincy McDuffie game.

After going down 14-0 late in the 1st quarter, McDuffie got the Knights on the board with a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown that kept the team within reach of the Pirates. It was the exact kind of play that could jolt some life into the UCF offense, which tied the game up early on in the 2nd quarter thanks to a Storm Johnson touchdown rush. McDuffie would later get a 64-yard touchdown reception to get UCF ahead by multiple scores for the first time in the game.

It may have ultimately been a handy UCF victory, 40-20, but McDuffie gave the Knights the jump start they needed to get there.

Andrew: I’m going to go with last year’s comeback win in Orlando. It being at home pushes it ahead of UCF’s first win in the series back in 2005. Last year, this was a very gutsy moment for the Knights. They had already lost half the team to injury against Louisville and had the letdown against Navy the game prior. At 2-2, the season stood on a precipice. Will the Knights turn the season around or fall off the cliff? With seven minutes to go and down by six points, the Knights offense, led by freshman quarterback Mikey Keene, started to chip away, kicking a field goal two minutes later. UCF got the ball back with 3:39 left in the game while down four at their own 36-yard line. A few key completions moved the ball to ECU’s 27-yard line. It then became a shining moment for running back Mark-Antony Richards as he had four carries of 19-7-0-1 yards with the last one being the go-ahead score with 0:20 left. With it now a four-point game, ECU had to score a touchdown and ran out of time before doing so. UCF would improve to 3-2 and this would help propel them to a 9-4 finish with a Gasparilla Bowl win.

Kyle: In 2018, whispers were abound that the Knights starting quarterback McKenzie Milton wouldn’t play. Shockingly, the rumors turned out to be true as DJ Mack started his first game while freshman Holton Ahlers (yes, the same guy) was taking snaps for the Pirates. ECU kept it close, but linebacker Nate Evans sealed the game on a 91 scamper to the house when Ahlers was hit while attempting a jump pass.

This game was what arguably gave Mack the reps and confidence to do what he did that year in the American Athletic Conference Championship game to come back in the second half and secure back-to-back conference titles.

Is East Carolina a rival?

Jeff: They were when they jumped out to a 9-2 lead in the all-time series in the Conference USA days, but then the AAC and Hail Perriman happened and UCF has dominated since, to the tune of seven of the last eight. So no.

Bryson: I don’t think it's on the same level as USF, but it’s certainly a better rivalry than the Civil ConFLiCT. I think it’s just cooled off in recent years.

During the O’Leary era, this series was almost always a close matchup. However, USF and the War on I-4 came back into the picture in 2013. Then, during the Frost and Heupel days, UCF began dominating the series and fans shifted focus to the “us against the CFB world” attitude that came with the 2017 season.

I think, with the teams soon to be in separate conferences for the 1st time since 2004, I think this week is a great opportunity to say farewell to an old rival that provided us with plenty of great memories.

Andrew: Two years ago, I wrote about the history between ECU and UCF. The two schools have had quite an intertwined history, both on and off the field. Older ECU fans still remember and hate UCF for the injury of quarterback Marcus Crandell in the early 1990s. Then, the back-and-forth journey through Conference USA. In recent years, UCF has made this more one-sided and tieing the series 10-10. ECU does have the distinction of being the team UCF has played the most, so winning this weekend is extra important due to the series likely ending for the foreseeable future. ECU plays at Dowdy-Finklen Stadium. How would you have felt if UCF’s new on-campus stadium was called Dowdy Stadium(named for the same guy) instead of Bright House Networks Stadium? It almost happened.

Kyle: If they are, after Saturday night, they are certainly not. while playing a program 21 times certainly makes it worthy of consideration, unless this program gets significantly bolstered and can hold on to head Coach Mike Houston, it’s doubtful they’ll elevate to be able to meet UCF on a consistent basis in the future.


Jeff: This has one-score game written all over it. 33-26 UCF.

Bryson: ECU has played a lot of teams close at home this season, and I think that will continue this week. I say UCF squeaks it out, 31-28.

Andrew: UCF is going to have to work a bit, but momentum is riding high and that energy is contagious. ECU will stick around, but the Knights are more talented and will make fewer mistakes. UCF 38-24.

Kyle: This game with the Pirates will look similar to Temple minus that 70-burger on the scoreboard. The defense will give up early touchdowns, UCF fans on social media will declare the season over by the end of the first quarter. Then UCF puts consecutive drives together. And they hold on 35-28.