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UCF’s Week 8 Checklist Review vs. East Carolina

It wasn’t perfect, but the Knights did show improvement in some important areas Saturday

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Central Florida
UCF defensive tackle Anthony Montalvo recorded one of the Knights’ three sacks versus East Carolina.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Here is what I was watching for on Saturday night. Here are the results:

1. How will the UCF Knights perform in the red zone?

Their first five offensive drives ended like this:

Touchdown.
Touchdown.
Touchdown.
Touchdown.
Touchdown.

That’ll do. Three of those drives did get into the red zone. The first was set up by a 52-yard catch and run by Marlon Williams to the 1. The second one got to the 4 before Greg McCrae walked in for a score.

The third was a little tougher as the Knights had third and 8 at the 18, but Dillon Gabriel delivered a strike to Gabriel Davis on a slant — a play where the corner just had no chance against such a big receiver, and the linebacker who dropped into a zone and faded much to far toward the sideline. If that LB had been able to stay in front of where Davis was cutting across the field, that would have been a much tougher throw (Later in the game, Gabriel should have been picked off on a very similar play, but one where the linebacker did a better job of reading the quarterback’s eyes). With the LB taking himself out of the play, it was an easy six.

UCF’s lone scoreless red zone trip came late in the fourth quarter. A false start penalty on second and 12 didn’t help, but I’m not going to overreact to a missed opportunity at a point when the game was functionally over.

Likewise, even though the Knights’ defense allowed points on all but one of the East Carolina Pirates’ seven appearances in the red zone, three concluded with field goals. A fourth trip began at the 1-yard line following a blocked punt, so you can’t really blame the defense for a TD there. The first time UCF’s defense allowed a red-zone touchdown following a real drive didn’t happen until there was 4:45 remaining in the third quarter.

All in all, I think it was a positive performance by both sides .

2. How will the Knights’ offensive line hold up?

Pretty well, before and after its starting left side went down with injuries. I had my eyes on ECU defensive end Kendall Futrell, and he certainly did his damage. He beat right tackle Jake Brown and backup left tackle Edward Collins for sacks, using the same rip move to beat each man. He now has eight sacks, tied for sixth-most in the nation.

But the rest of East Carolina’s defense was neutralized to the tune of no sacks and just five tackles for loss.

I thought both Collins and Matthew Lee acquitted themselves well when they were suddenly pressed into action. They didn’t create a ton of space in the run game besides this gigantic hole on Bentavious Thompson’s 32-yard touchdown. But it didn’t feel as if the O-line really suffered without tackle Samuel Jackson or guard Cole Schneider. Collins was especially impressive because he was often matched up with Futrell and, besides that one sack, kept him at bay.

“They both played really well,” head coach Josh Heupel said Monday of Collins and Lee. “Obviously as young guys, there’s some things that they’re going to learn from, but I thought they played hard, they competed, they played with pretty good technique for the most part.”

Heupel also said he expects Jackson and Schneider to play Saturday at Temple, but the value of getting a couple freshmen that kind in-game experience is impossible to quantify.

3. Can UCF’s defense get home?

After accruing just five sacks in their last four games, the Knights picked up three sacks Saturday. Eric Mitchell, who was fantastic in this game, notched one a few plays before Brendon Hayes and Kenny Turnier combined to level quarterback Holton Ahlers in the fourth quarter.

The third sack went to Anthony Montalvo, but that was more a case of Ahlers seeing ghosts in a clean pocket and panicking into a sack. There could have been more; Ahlers avoided what would have been a sack by instead heaving up a pass that begged to be intercepted. Antwan Collier obliged.

Much like the other areas I have spotlighted in this article, it wasn’t perfect, but there was progress.

4. Can UCF keep the self-inflicted mistakes to a minimum?

This, however, remains worrisome. UCF committed 11 penalties, including six in the first quarter alone. They gave the Pirates 89 free yards.

Now, according to the Knights, not all penalties are created equal. Defensive coordinator Randy Shannon has indicated that in-play penalties don’t bother him too much because when you play as physical as the Knights’ defense wants to play, some flags are going to head your way. Safety Richie Grant clarified that stance further on Monday, stating that it’s really the pre- and post-snap penalties that the team is looking to eradicate.

That definitely didn’t happen Saturday. Collier was called for unsportsmanlike conduct well after a first-quarter punt was caught by Otis Anderson. I’m not exactly sure what happened on that play; you can see Collier on the telecast walking toward the sideline, then a bunch of whistles are heard a few seconds later. Whether he mixed it up with a Pirates player or not, that can’t happen.

But it did happen again as Tre Nixon shoved an ECU player and got tagged with a personal foul after a first-down run from Dillon Gabriel. Nixon also lined up offsides once (And while we’re on the topic, Nixon had a really ugly drop that killed a third-quarter drive. I know he had a big stat line, but this was not a great showing for him).

UCF had five pre-snap penalties, not including three offsides calls that were declined. None of those mistakes really hindered any meaningful drives. But that kind of undisciplined play could end up changing the game at Temple. It did at both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.