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UCF’s Week 4 Checklist vs. Pittsburgh

Four things to watch during the Knights’ first out-of-state test this season.

Defensive end Randy Charlton
Photo: Derek Warden

1. Strength on strength: UCF’s offensive line vs. Pittsburgh’s defensive line

The Pittsburgh Panthers have already seen defensive tackle Keyshon Camp and defensive end Rashad Weaver — their leading sack man from last season — go down for the season due to knee injuries. And yet, the Panthers’ defensive front has still been fearsome in the early going. Led by defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman, Pitt has recorded 12 sacks — ninth-most in the nation — and 22 tackles for loss through three games. They are sacking QBs at a rate of one for about every eight dropbacks, and their run defense sits among the top 50.

So here comes the UCF Knights’ offensive line, which has given up a grand total of one sack and has cleared the path for a top-10 ground game that comes at you with a handful of different options. That group has been marvelous this year, but this will be their toughest test to date.

2. Can the Knights take advantage of the Panthers’ overhauled O-line?

They wouldn’t be the first. The Panthers are playing with four new starters along the offensive line, and it has been a rocky start for that unit, especially when it comes to run blocking. Pitt’s ground attack is among the bottom 10 in yards per game. The running backs are getting stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage on 23.8 percent of their carries, per Football Outsiders. The line’s pass blocking has been better, but is merely mediocre.

As I said in our Knights’ Roundtable article on Friday, I expect the likes of defensive end Randy Charlton to have a big game against this leaky Panthers front.

3. What does QB Dillon Gabriel have for an encore?

This is extremely vague, and it’s going to be difficult to improve upon 22-for-30 for 347 yards, four touchdowns and no turnovers against arguably the best defense UCF will face during the regular season.

But ... can he do it again? Can he be as impressive versus another power-conference team on the road? I still believe there will come a time this season when we see Gabriel actually perform like an 18-year-old true freshman. To this point, however, he has exceeded expectations. He doesn’t need to be brilliant for UCF to win today; as long as he continues to take care of the football and deal deftly with pressure in and around the pocket, he and the Knights will be fine.

4. Will the Panthers continue to play press coverage?

Pittsburgh’s defense wants its cornerbacks to be physical at the line of scrimmage with opposing wideouts. That shouldn’t bother UCF’s receivers one bit:

So, will the Panthers stay with what they know best or will they get exotic with how they defend and cover? Perhaps we will see some zone coverage or some daring perimeter blitzes from them. Or maybe nothing changes and Pitt’s cornerbacks play the style in which they are most comfortable. But they also might be playing right into UCF’s hands.