The UCF Knights face the Oklahoma State Cowboys Saturday in the annual Space Game, and it’s time we give our takes on five of the biggest questions UCF will have to answer.
Let’s grab a seat at the Round Table:
1. How can this defense stop Ollie Gordon II?
Jeff: The best defense, in this case, is a good offense.
Found a fun stat from Parker Fleming of CFB-Graphs.com: UCF is #1 in the nation in yards before contact per rush at nearly 4:
YARDS BEFORE CONTACT PER RUSH— parker fleming (@statsowar) November 10, 2023
FBS OFFENSES vs FBS 2023 pic.twitter.com/iTQESnspkj
Don’t complicate it: Run the ball. UCF is 4th in the nation in rushing offense, and Oklahoma State is tied for 95th in rushing defense. Hit ‘em where they ain’t, chew up the clock, keep Ollie and company off the field, and then use play action to attack their 108th-ranked pass defense for points.
Nick: I’m with Jeff on this one. While the easy thing to say is “Play like how they did against Oklahoma,” I just don’t see that happening. The fact is this defense struggles against the run and they're about to face a Heisman Trophy candidate. So the best way to stop him is for the UCF offense to stay on the field as long as possible, so Oklahoma State’s is on as little as possible.
Kyle: They don’t. The best bet is to prevent the big plays from happening from Gordon. Get the secondary involved on first down and third down often to close up the outside. I expect the Cowboys to run for over 100 yards, but it’s the stops on third down and in the red zone that will keep the Knights' defense in the contest.
2. What did UCF do differently last week vs. Cincy that got it over the hump?
Jeff: We won the turnover battle! UCF forced two turnovers and gave up none. They cashed a fumble in for a TD (on an 88-yard drive, by the way), and the interception stopped what was looking like a lucrative Cincy drive just before halftime. That came out to at least a 7-point swing.
Fun fact: UCF has won the turnover battle twice in conference play this year, against Oklahoma (1-0) and Cincinnati (2-0). Those are the two conference games where we’ve played the best.
Nick: Turnovers, like Jeff said, were huge. but another thing was John Rhys Plumlee ran the ball more. He seemed healthier than he was in past games as he ran faster, for more yards, and on more designed running plays. UCF had an extra weapon on offense against Cincinnati and that was huge for them getting the win.
Kyle: I knew Jeff would come in screaming about turnovers and rightly so. But it was the inability of Cincy to finish drives with touchdowns that decided the contest of which those turnovers were a part. In the style of a 2017 UCF defense, give up as many ground yards as you’d like — just see to it that in a short field, they don’t cross the goal line.
3. What’s our read on JRP after last week’s OK performance?
Jeff: I still think that knee is really bothering him. I have no idea if the knee itself is bugging him or if it’s just a precaution to wear the brace, but if the doctor says to wear it, he should still wear it. But it has hampered his explosiveness. He ran for 53 yards last week, which is the most since the injury. But Cincy took advantage of that lack of explosiveness and tried — albeit with moderate success — to keep him in the pocket, allowing him only 13 completions for 165 yards, 40 of which were on one play.
My hope is he’s getting progressively better week-to-week, but it’s almost oxymoronic to recover from an injury while playing.
Nick: Like I said in my previous answer he looks healthy enough that he and his coaches feel comfortable enough to let him run a bit. That being said, he is clearly not 100%. He’s still not as fast as he was at the start of the year and though he's running more than in previous games, he's not running it as much as he did before the injury.
Kyle: JRP’s issue isn’t health, in my opinion. He seems healthy enough for opponents to respect the run and RJ Harvey and the offensive line have supplemented nicely. For me, JRP’s issue rehab needs to come in the film room. He needs to be able to read potential blitzes a bit better so he can be better prepared to escape or check down.
Last week’s 13 for 23 for 165 is not a stat line that beats Oklahoma State.
4. Oklahoma State’s defense is pretty bad. How can they be had?
Jeff: See above. Run, run, and run some more. It won’t be pretty, but we’re not here to look good. The uniforms take care of that. We’re here to win.
Nick: Let RJ Harvey and the rest of the running backs, along with JRP, cook.
Kyle: Balance. RJ Harvey will get his 5th straight 100+ yard game. I expect a winning UCF stat line to feature a 100+ yard receiver as well.
5. This year’s Space Game uniforms: Yea or Nay?
Jeff: Yea. We’ve wanted Canaveral Blue and we got it! Now, I can see where it could be considered overkill, and that’s fine. We were due. But I think this showcases variety quite nicely, and I LOVE that sword/rocket logo we have going on there.
Now, next year, I’d really like to see us return to a historical theme. It’s the 55th anniversary of the moon landing, and I’d love to see us pay tribute to the history of the Cape.
Nick: I said this on the latest edition of the Knightshift podcast and I’ll say it again: On its own, these aren’t bad. I’m a sucker for powder blue jerseys and I like the design. But as a space game jersey my reaction is simply, “Is that it?”
Look at past space jerseys. They had star constellations, or looked like astronaut suits. They screamed SPACE. They were creative and original. But these? They just slapped a small rocket to the color and wrote “SpaceU” on the front and called it a day. Where's the creativity? Look these jerseys are not bad. I think they look cool. But when it comes to UCF Space jerseys, I expect more.
Kyle: These might be among the best North Carolina Tar Heels uniforms I’ve ever seen. As for UCF “drip”, they are absolutely terrible and lazy.
Nick: This game is just too unpredictable. Oklahoma State may be ranked but I truly believe UCF can get the win. I’m not going to even try and predict this one. I’m just going to sit back and (hopefully) enjoy the show.
Kyle: Unlike my fence-sitting compatriots, I acknowledge this is a tough job, and someone has to do it. I see it being a close one where each side scores with at least one big play. Both these teams are designed for sloppy football, but this is still the Big 12 where scoreboards light up like a Christmas tree put up in the living room before Thanksgiving. 31-24 OK State.