SpaceX fired up a Falcon-9 rocket from nearby Cape Canaveral earlier in the day and it foreshadowed what was to come as the UCF Knights broke out their 2020 space game uniforms and their explosive offense jumped ahead to defeat the Tulane Green Wave 51-34 to snap a two-game losing skid. It’s knee-jerk reaction time.
This was UCF’s fifth space game dating back to 2016. The first one didn’t have a custom uniform and the Knights lost. Since then, UCF has created a custom uniform for each game and has won each one. Players definitely feed off the energy of a cool-looking uniform and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The Knights were coming off their first back-to-back loss in 1,400 days. Both losses had UCF leads that were whittled away in the second half with the Memphis loss last week being very demoralizing. Coach Josh Heupel confirmed the value of the space game jerseys, saying “Our guys love the space game uniform...It’s a huge thing in recruiting too.”
Speaking of spacing out, quarterback Dillon Gabriel continues to rip apart defences at a record pace. After throwing for a school-record 601 yards last week, he followed up with another 422 yards. The primary beneficiary has been senior wide receiver Marlon Williams. Williams is on pace to potentially rewrite the UCF record books despite a shorter season. As of the end of the game, he has 54 catches for 754 yards. The receptions record is 90, set by Mike Sims-Walker in 2006 and the yardage record is 1,241, set by Gabriel Davis in 2019. As for Gabriel, his 2,174 passing yards are on pace to break McKenzie Milton’s record of 4,037 from 2017. I’d like to point out that these old records were set with complete seasons.
While we’re still talking about space, let’s give the Knights’ offensive coaches some credit for throwing some new wrinkles into the offense. The growing use of an H-Back along with plays with routes that go over the middle have been welcome additions. The Knights scored more than once as a result of utilizing the middle of the field. Overall, this was the most complete three quarters of football UCF has played this season. The fourth quarter was more of a coasting to the finish.
The season is not over
Far from it.
While it’s easy to say it’s over since the College Football Playoff is out of reach, a New Year’s Six bowl is very unlikely, and a conference championship game is an uphill battle, the season isn’t over. Over the last three seasons, expectations have become very high and a 10-3 season with a bowl win in 2019 has been viewed by many as a disappointment. While UCF won’t be able to have a fourth consecutive double digit win season because COVID-19 has shrunk UCF’s regular season to nine games, there is still room in the trophy case for another bowl game trophy.
The season also offers valuable development for the freshmen who have been playing on both sides of the field. The remaining part of the season allows for the team to look into designing and trying new plays and schemes, which was evident today. The young defense took some lumps as freshman quarterback Michael Pratt had his statistically best day. However, the Knights as a whole had their best day in the penalty department, only being flagged four times. It’s the team’s best since having four against South Florida in 2018.
Also, keep in mind that development is cumulative. Success in 2020 can parlay into 2021 success with the retained players.
There’s still work to do
While winning is a great panacea on the surface, there is still work to do.
The defensive depth is hurting. Multiple freshmen and other players of less experience had to play meaningful time again at both the cornerback position and at linebacker. While the young corners have been a season-long issue and they’re learning on the job, it does limit what defensive coordinator Randy Shannon can do. There are also the linebackers. Eriq Gilyard missed all of the Memphis game and Eric Mitchell missed most of the second half and the defensive drop was evident. Today, there was a span that Gilyard and Mitchell were replaced by sophomores Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste and Tatum Bethune and Tulane’s offense was very effective during that time. In conventional seasons, Jean-Baptiste or Bethune would be the presumptive starter next year alongside Gilyard since Mitchell is a senior. With 2020 giving players an extra year of eligibility, it’s impossible to know who will take advantage of the eligibility and who won’t.
The kicking game needs work too. Experience can be a big help. Even Matthew Wright, the most accurate kicker in UCF history, struggled his freshman year. Ideally, you don’t want an inexperienced kicker on the field because the pressure is high, but you work with what you got and that is what UCF has to work with.
After last week’s meltdown on the sidelines, the team appeared to have more cohesiveness. The hope is that cooler heads prevailed and problems were more adequately communicated.
UCF: Dillon Gabriel: 26/40 for 422 yards, 5 TD, 0 Int
Tulane: Michael Pratt: 14/24 for 215 yards, 3 TD, 1 Int
UCF: Greg McCrae: 25 carries for 162 yards, 1 TD
Tulane: Stephon Huderson: 14 carries for 88 yards, 1 TD
UCF: Marlon Williams: 9 catches for 174 yards, 3 TD
Tulane: Jha’Quan Jackson: 4 catches for 59 yards, 2 TD
- In the last 44 games for UCF, they have had 42 games of 30 points or more. The Knights have won 38 of those 44, including four wins against top 25 teams and five wins against Power Five conference teams.
- Dillon Gabriel has passed for a touchdown in 18 straight games.
- Gabriel has thrown for at least 400 yards four times this season, which is a new school record for both in a season and career. The old career record was three, which was done by Daunte Culpepper and Ryan Schneider. The single season record was two.
- Gabriel’s 2,178 passing yards is the most in FBS after five games since Patrick Mahomes in 2016.
- UCF has had at least one passing and one rushing touchdown for 44 straight games. This streak leads the nation.
- Greg McCrae scored his 24th rushing touchdown in the second quarter, which ties him with Daunte Culpepper for sixth best in school history.
- UCF now leads the series 8-2 against Tulane.
- Sorry this isn’t my best. I’ll try harder next time.