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UCF’s Checklist vs. Tulsa

Can the Knights do what’s necessary to gain a measure of revenge against the Golden Hurricane?

UCF vs East Carolina Photo by Conor Kvatek/Collegiate Images via Getty Images

Josh Heupel understandably downplayed any notion that today’s matchup with the Tulsa Golden Hurricane is a "revenge game" for the UCF Knights. To him, it's just the next game on their schedule.

But it’s not just any game to at least some of the Knights, including quarterback Dillon Gabriel.

“I just know we’ve been waiting for this week. Personally, I’ve been waiting for this week. That’s all I’ve got to say,” Gabriel said Monday. “Saturday will come at 7:30 and we’ll see what happens.”

Yes, we will. Specifically, here are four things to keep your eye on tonight.

1. How will UCF’s O-line fare in pass protection?

Everyone knows about UCF’s problems with turnovers in its three losses last season; nine of its 15 turnovers came in those defeats. But the Knights allowed 15 of their 24 sacks in those games, too. The Golden Hurricane got to Gabriel six times last year, and the reasons behind those sacks were three-fold:

— Missed assignments by the offensive line
— Tight coverage giving Gabriel nowhere to throw
— Gabriel panicking as the pocket collapsed and sort of dooming himself.

We haven’t seen much of that this year as Gabriel has been taken down just twice in two weeks. But Tulsa racked up six sacks and 14 tackles for loss against Oklahoma State, its only game thus far. Their 3-3 defensive front can cause lots of confusion for O-lines. The difference this year for UCF, I think, is Gabriel’s willingness and confidence to run, either by design or out of necessity when things break down around him.

“I think Dillon is growing in just his comfort and understanding protection schemes, where he’s weak, how to get the ball out, how to move in the pocket,” Heupel said Thursday. “All those things play into us doing a better job than we did a year ago against Tulsa. We need to do that again on Saturday.”

2. Can the Knights’ defense get more production out of its front four?

Defensive line coach Shane Burnham said this week that his group is leaving plays on the field. The Knights have recorded a respectable 14 tackles for loss, but Burnham wants to see more this week from his rotation of 10-13 men.

He actually wants them to resemble the Stanley Cup Champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I don’t like hockey, but I love how those guys just come on those shifts. They just go, go, go, go, go,” Burnham said Tuesday in his raspy, energetic style. “You watch that guy on the ice and he’s just full speed and then they go again. The next three come out or five or however many, I don’t know.

“But that’s what we want to be. That’s what we want to be. Go as hard as you can for as long as you can.”

That right there is one example why Burnham is the most entertaining coach on this team.

He was pleased with how many times his line hit East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers last week, but he wants them to look more like the unit that averaged a nation-leading nine tackles for loss per game in 2019.

3. Penalties. Obviously.

I don’t know if you heard, but the Knights committed 19 penalties at ECU. Eleven of them were pre-snap penalties. Heupel was asked Thursday what his expectation is for his team in that department against Tulsa. He didn’t mince words.

“The expectation is simple: Eliminate them,” he said.

UCF will never, ever again commit four false starts before its first play. That’s just simply an outlier. But certainly, penalties have haunted the Knights for multiple seasons now and they were whistled 15 times for 120 yards against Tulsa in 2019.

But the Golden Hurricane have their own frustrations in this area. No team gave up more yards off of penalties last year than Tulsa and only one other FBS program was called for more penalties per game. One game into this season, it looks like those bad habits have followed them. Tulsa committed 15 penalties against Oklahoma State, including six in the fourth quarter as it squandered any hope of pulling off the upset.

4. How much will the weather impact this game?

While too many penalties can make a game figuratively sloppy, Mother Nature might turn tonight’s affair into a real mess. You might want to pack a poncho if you’re headed to the Bounce House.

As if the battle at the line scrimmage wasn’t already paramount. Wet weather might dampen UCF’s high-powered passing attack and force the Knights to go to the ground more often. Not that they can’t succeed there — UCF’s backs ran for more than 200 yards at Tulsa last season as well as in each of the first two games this season.

It’s also another reason why, if you’re inclined to bet on this game, I think the under looks like the smart play.