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UCF’s Third-Quarter Defense Recently Has Been Something to Behold

The Knights’ post-halftime dominance is becoming a trend

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Houston at UCF
Defensive tackle Kalia Davis notched one of UCF’s five sacks versus Houston.
Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The setting, the opponent and the uniforms were all different. But Saturday’s win over the Houston Cougars came with a strong sense of deja vu.

An early deficit and a close halftime score gave way to total domination by the UCF Knights, in the third quarter. Why has this defense lived up to its #UCFierce moniker upon coming out of the break against Temple and Houston? There hasn’t been a “Eureka!” moment, according to the Knights.

“I don’t think, schematically, there’s major changes that have happened at halftime,” head coach Josh Heupel said. “I think as much as anything, I think our kids have settled into the game. They’ve gotten their eyes in the right place and played with great technique.”

Added defensive tackle Kenny Turnier: “We’re just limiting the mistakes and we’re playing hard.”

Linebacker Nate Evans was a little more elucidative, admitting that the defense has a tendency to begin games “a little sluggish, not feeling it.

“We have to fix that probably during this week of practice,” he said. “Probably this week, that’s going to be our thing, just to stay on that gas pedal and don’t let off.”

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that UCF’s inability to finish games with authority was a much-discussed topic after triumphs over Connecticut and East Carolina. UCF was outscored 43-20 and outgained 569-356 in the latter half of those games. But perhaps grumbling about those halves is wasted oxygen, because those efforts don’t seem to really bother UCF’s coaches.

“I think sometimes it’s hard when you’re up 35-6, whatever it was [against ECU], I think it’s natural; you do let your guard down,” defensive line coach Shane Burnham said last week. “The older guys know we’re going to start some of the younger guys. It’s not an excuse, but that does happen at times.”

But the Knights’ defense, under the tutelage of coordinator Randy Shannon, has been exceptionally tough immediately following halftime in close games recently. You could even include the third quarter at Cincinnati last month, in which they allowed a field goal on the opening drive before restraining the Bearcats to just 11 yards through their next three drives. Yes, the play of that game was the last play of that quarter — Michael Warren II’s 60-yard run — but while the offense was stuck in cement, it was the defense that kept the Knights alive.

That defense has taken its third-quarter success to another level these past two weeks in games where the halftime margins were just seven and two.

Here is a simple recap of those two third quarters for the defense:

— Opponent’s time of possession: 15:20
— 10 possessions
— 31 plays (13 run plays, 18 pass plays)
— 13 carries for 26 yards
— 7-for-14 passing for 25 yards and two interceptions
— 9 tackles for loss, including 4 sacks
— 18 net yards gained (that total drops to 3 yards when you include penalties)
— 2 first downs
— 0 points

One more note: All but three of those 26 rushing yards came on three consecutive snaps by Houston on Saturday. If you take out that little series, UCF has allowed 3 rushing yards on 10 carries in their past two third quarters.

Sure, the defense was almost as formidable in the fourth quarters that followed, but by the start of that period, both games were effectively over; UCF outscored Temple 28-0 and Houston 21-0 in the third.

The third quarter changed everything, even if the defense didn’t undergo a monumental change during the half.

“It’s crazy because Coach Shannon comes in (at halftime) and says ‘Alright, this is all we’ve got to do,’” cornerback Nevelle Clarke said Monday. “He’ll literally talk for 30 seconds and split us up into our own position groups. It’ll just be short and brief, and it won’t even be a major tweak to the defense. It’s just something minor, and it’ll just be good for the rest of the game.

“It’s like he’s whispering almost. We’re just looking at him crazy like, ‘You serious?’ He’s not really telling us anything, but in the second half, we just improve.”

It sounds as if UCF’s third-quarter superiority is as inexplicable for us as it is for the players. This may be nothing more than fun with small sample size, but whatever Shannon, the defense whisperer, is telling his defense in those quick halftime get-togethers is obviously working.

Will this continue for a third straight week when the Knights visit the Tulsa Golden Hurricane on Friday? It’s a fool’s errand to predict anything in this sport, but if once is a data point and twice is a coincidence, thrice is a trend.