If the Pittsburgh loss was a wake-up phone call, Friday night in Cincinnati was an airhorn outside of the UCF Knights’ bedroom window.
Head coach Josh Heupel was asked following the defeat if now is a good time for the Knights to have a bye week. He basically gave the non-answer of “It is what it is,” but let me be direct: It is. UCF needs time to fix what ails them, and there are a handful of matters in need of immediate attention.
ICYMI: On the latest #Knight Shift post game show, @Jeff_Sharon, @EricLopezELO and @LukeSarrisSBN break down #UCF’s infuriating loss to Cincinnati last night and where the Knights go from here.#GKCO #ChargeOn https://t.co/agxU0vC0fe— Black & Gold Banneret (@UCF_Banneret) October 5, 2019
The running game is damaged
Not irrevocably so, but something is definitely off-kilter with the Knights’ once-potent rushing attack. In its last two games against real competition and real defenses — let’s not kid ourselves and pretend that UConn is a legitimate FBS program right now — UCF’s three-headed monster of Greg McCrae, Adrian Killins Jr. and Otis Anderson gained 262 yards on 58 carries. That may not look too bad on the surface at 4.5 yards per carry, but we’re talking about three players who entered Friday’s contest with a YPC average north of 6.0 and a team that was picking up more than 200 rushing yards per game.
As everyone knows, it all starts up front, and the Knights’ offensive line was bullied in both of those road tests. It has been especially difficult for them to get a push up the middle. It’s a surprising development given the amount of talent in that backfield and on the O-line, but the plain fact is that UCF’s offense has been beaten consistently at the point of attack in its last two losses.
The offense needs more diversity
It’s fun to look at the stat sheet and see that Gabriel Davis had 21 targets Friday night. Twenty-one targets! And to his credit, he did as much as he could, posting 13 catches for 170 yards against a defense that focused hard on keeping everything in front of them.
But you know something is wrong when one receiver in this offense is getting a 46 percent target share. Whether it’s bland play-calling or Dillon Gabriel’s decision-making, the Knights are letting too many of their impact offensive players waste away. I don’t think there is any better example of this than the lack of usage for Killins and Anderson in the passing game.
Neither man was targeted at Pitt, and Killins took another goose egg as a receiver this week. Anderson caught three of four targets for 20 harmless yards. We know they have solid receiving chops, but that duo is on pace to record just 30 receptions combined.
I should also mention Marlon Williams, UCF’s top slot man entering the season, saw a total of three targets in those two contests.
Right now, UCF’s top pass-catchers are Gabriel Davis, Tre Nixon and To Be Determined. We know this receiving corps is SO much more than its leading two wideouts. Not finding almost any way to get those other players involved is gross negligence.
Stuck in the red zone
UCF’s offense is still among one of the 10 best in college football, but it is leaving points on the field.
Last season, the Knights were outstanding when they got into the red zone, scoring on 89.8 percent of their trips, the 14th-highest rate in college football. This year, however, their success rate has fallen to 75.9 percent, which ranks 100th among the 130 FBS teams. They have also settled for as many field goals in the red zone — six — as they did for the entire 2018-19 season. On Friday, UCF tallied just one touchdown out of six red zone tries. Three ended with field goals and the other two chances were squashed by interceptions.
This team can still score with ease; no one should be freaking out after one game with fewer than 30 points for the first time since the start of 2017. But this team is also not executing well enough in the tight, important areas of the field where they should be adding sevens to the scoreboard, not threes.
The middle of the field is still a problem area for UCF’s defense
It was stupefying to see just how confused the Knights’ defense looked in Pittsburgh when it came to guarding the middle of the field. They got victimized commonly by crossing routes, even though everyone and their mother knew going in that was a staple of Pitt’s passing offense.
UCF’s D was much stronger on Friday. Honestly, that group did everything possible to keep the Knights in the game during the third quarter while the offense could barely gain a yard.
But in the second quarter, Cincinnati took a 10-6 lead by cashing in on Gabriel’s lost fumble. How did they do it? Yep, with crossing routes. WR Trent Cloud, running to the defense’s left and underneath WR Alec Pierce, got safely in between Eric Mitchell and Richie Grant for the score. I’m not sure who had responsibility for Cloud on that play — I think it was Mitchell — but as it unfolded live, it felt like a replay.
Also, the Knights had trouble stopping tight end Josiah Deguara down the seams. He totaled a team-high five catches for 64 yards, but could have had a much bigger night if not for some Desmond Ridder overthrows while Deguara was open.
Right now, there is a clear blueprint for beating UCF’s pass defense. Any opponent with a quality pass-catching tight end and receivers who aren’t afraid to go over the middle must be salivating at what they see on tape in these two losses.
Dillon Gabriel spoiled us early
This isn’t really something that needs fixing or even can be fixed; I just wanted to mention it for those who are ranting this weekend about what UCF needs to do at quarterback.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Gabriel is a true freshman. I don’t think any of us wanted to believe it, especially after how he was so unbelievably masterful versus Stanford last month.
Both Heupel and Gabriel brushed off questions about how the QB’s youth might have played a role in his mistake-filled Friday night. But I think what we have learned about Gabriel in these two losses is that he is (GASP!) not perfect. He is a true freshman. A very talented one at that, but one with whom the ride isn’t always going to be smooth.
Gabriel committed four turnovers versus the Cincinnati Bearcats, three of which were really his fault. The pick-six changed the game and his deep-ball accuracy didn’t make the team flight, but I was most alarmed when Gabriel dropped the ball at the mesh point of a read-option play twice. That’s just basic stuff. Cincy recovered one of those fumbles and turned it into a touchdown on the ensuing drive (more on that in a minute).
None of this is being used to bash Gabriel. It’s only to restate that true freshmen quarterbacks are inherently fallible. He isn’t as bad as he performed here, but to expect every week for him to be the guy who torched the Cardinal is also fanciful.
Should Heupel have inserted Darriel Mack Jr. while Gabriel was struggling in Friday’s second half? Yes, I think so. But I am personally against a full-on change at QB. I think Gabriel, even after this game, is still UCF’s best overall QB. He is their best passer at all levels. He’s just far from a finished product, and you’ve got to take the good with the bad.
Much like halftime adjustments inside of a game, the Knights need to make halftime adjustments this week for the second half of the season. They will have time to diagnose and repair the bugs in the system. We’ll see in the weeks ahead if it was enough time to even keep the Knights afloat in the AAC East, where, for the first time in a long time, they are fighting an uphill battle.