Here is what I was watching for in New Orleans on Saturday. Here’s how it turned out.
1. How does the UCF Knights’ defense try to defend Tulane Green Wave QB Justin McMillan
The numbers don’t look great: McMillan ran for a career-high 102 yards — the same amount USF quarterback Quinton Flowers had versus UCF in that 2017 Black Friday epic.
But McMillan’s big plays on the ground were nowhere near as impactful as what Flowers did that night. The Tulane QB was harrassed for much of the game, and 43 of those yards were amassed in the fourth quarter while the Knights were leading by three scores. UCF recorded four sacks against an O-line that had given up just 16 on the season.
Defensive line coach Shane Burnham said Monday that he was “pleased” with how his guys tried to contain McMillan and Tulane’s run game, which attacks opponents out of unique formations and with multiple backs. He highlighted the defense’s fourth-and-1 stop at the UCF 38-yard line in the first quarter. Tulane set up in its Wing T formation, but linebacker Eriq Gilyard shot into the backfield to disrupt the play, which was finished off by linebacker Nate Evans.
Overall, McMillan was dynamic, but a lot of his rushing yards were empty. Also, when he couldn’t run, McMillan simply wasn’t capable of bailing himself out of tough situations as a passer, either due to pressure or some plainly horrid throwing mechanics.
2. Will the Knights’ offensive line plug their recent leaks?
Forty-seven pass attempts. Zero sacks. That’s the bottom line.
It wasn’t like Dillon Gabriel was made consistently uncomfortable in the pocket either. It helped that he didn’t attempt many deep throws and seemed more willing to tuck the ball and run a few times when he did face pressure. But after a week of “What is going wrong?!” questions toward everyone on the offensive line, let’s give them their due here. They were certainly good enough Saturday.
3. How will the homecoming Knights perform?
Per usual, Evans was all over the field, making big hits and tackles. He was also credited with two pass breakups. He said Monday that this game “is going to go down in the history books” for him because it was really the first time that all of his family from Waggaman, La. got to see him play for UCF.
Safety Richie Grant, who had family in attendance from a few hours up the road in Lumberton, Miss., compiled 12 tackles, which ties for the second-best total of his career. His nine solo tackles were a season-high.
New Orleans’ own Brendon Hayes started at defensive end, but didn’t do anything of note.
Still, getting the win and playing in front of loved ones is what mattered most.
4. What does RB Greg McCrae look like in his first game in more than a month?
McCrae’s month-long absence ended on UCF’s second drive of the day. He gained just 18 yards on seven carries. He had a long rush of 8 yards, which occurred on a third-and-24 snap in the fourth quarter. He also got stuffed on a third-and-goal run from the 2, which was the play preceding tight end Anthony Roberson’s first-ever UCF touchdown.
So, yeah, not a great day for Greg. But I wouldn’t say he looked like he was less than 100 percent. It didn’t seem like he was getting wide-open lanes, but you’d really need to see the all-22 film to confirm that. Plus, with the carries split six ways between Gabriel, Darriel Mack Jr. and a quartet of RBs, there wasn’t really an opportunity for any of those backs to get into a rhythm. Bentavious Thompson led the group with nine carries, and he does need to keep seeing the field with the way he’s playing.
I wouldn’t worry too much about this. Perhaps McCrae will be better versus USF, which ranks 116th in run defense. But even if not, you know there’s plenty of talent in this backfield that can keep the offense literally running smoothly.
Anthony Roberson also had a great recount of his 1st #UCF TD on Saturday, from his anticipation for the play, "blacking out" afterwards, celebrating w/ his teammates and having his family at Tulane to see it.— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) November 25, 2019
"I've been waiting all year for that. Actually for four years for it." pic.twitter.com/79guJEOQ12