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Knights at the Roundtable: Conquering the Cougars

Can the Knights get a win in the Lone Star State?

NCAA Football: Houston at Central Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Each week during the football season, a few staff contributors will answer five questions regarding the upcoming game ahead. It’s a way to get the staff to come together as well as the rest of Knights Nation, to see if they agree or disagree with the crew at BGB.

In our fourth roundtable of the football season, Jeff Sharon, Jeremy Brener, Eric Lopez, Brian Murphy and Andrew Gluchov take their seats at the roundtable to answer questions about the UCF Knights and their matchup with the Houston Cougars.

1) The Knights bounced back last weekend against Tulane. How can they keep their win streak going against Houston?

Jeff Sharon (@Jeff_Sharon): This is going to be a tougher one than people think. Houston’s pass offense is one of the best in the nation behind UCF, and the secondary will be challenged here. We’re used to the Knights getting off to a fast start, but they really need the defense to step it up in the second half, pressure Clayton Tune, and cause turnovers. Otherwise, if the Cougars get momentum in the second half, this could be a replay of Memphis.

Jeremy Brener (@JeremyBrener): The Knights need to play four solid quarters like they did last week. They can’t fold in the second half like they did in both of their losses. Last week was an improvement but it needs to turn into an expectation.

Eric Lopez (@EricLopezELO): By getting off to a UCFast start. Houston has been outscored 38-13 in first quarters this season. UCF should have some favorable matchups against a Houston pass defense that is ranked 64th in the country and ranks 94th out of 101 FBS teams in pass efficiency.

Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy): If they want to keep winning, they need to keep up the pressure on defense. We saw how well that worked versus Tulane as the Knights recorded five sacks and 11 tackles for loss, both season-highs. Senior defensive tackle Kenny Turnier had two of those sacks, and maybe that was a result of him not putting so much pressure on himself. Defensive line coach Shane Burnham said this week that they decided to bring Kenny “out of the bullpen” versus Tulane, allowing him to watch the first couple of series with the hope that he would just relax and respond. He certainly seemed to.

“I just think he presses. He’s put a lot on himself,” Burnham said of Turnier. “He wants to make plays. He knows we’re maybe a little bit thinner than we were last year at that position. And I think sometimes when you try to make too many plays, you don’t make any.”

Andrew Gluchov (@StatBoyDrew): This is going to be a game of score-happy offenses. The John Madden-esque answer is to say “whoever scores more points is going to win the game”. Simply put, UCF’s defensive secondary is going to have to make a stop. They’ve been decimated by untimely opt-outs, transfers that haven’t received NCAA clearance, injuries, and inexperience. Now, they will need to step up and make a stop.

2) Dillon Gabriel is running a historic offense. How much higher can his ceiling go?

Jeff: I’m not above saying this could be the greatest offense in UCF history, and we’ve had some good ones. Put it this way: If he keeps this pace up, expectations will again be high for 2021, and NFL scouts will start taking notice.

Jeremy: It’s unbelievable what DG has been able to do and he’s single-handedly become the most exciting part of this season. I think we could see a few more 500-yard performances out of him. The crazy part about this is that he’s doing most of this without their No. 1 WR in camp, Tre Nixon. He’s also turned Marlon Williams from a fringe NFL guy to a potential draft pick. Amazing that Gabriel is only a true sophomore.

Eric: Who knows? That is the exciting part and the reason we watch. I predicted before the season that he would take a giant step forward from his first year, similar to what McKenzie Milton did from 2016 to 2017.

Brian: I hope those fans who are frustrated by UCF’s two losses and their long shot odds of playing for a conference championship are still tuning in to bask in the glow of this offense every week. Don’t take this for granted. I know UCF has operated one of the nation’s most dangerous attacks for a handful of years now, but a quarterback such as Gabriel, who is putting up video-game numbers consistently, makes this team a must-watch even if it won’t reach its ultimate goal. Remember when we were all just happy to have football back in our lives? Don’t lose sight of that gift, and know that you get only a few more chances this year to watch Gabriel throw and score and throw and score and throw and score and score and run and throw and score and score...

As far as how much better he can get, why even suggest that there’s a ceiling? When he can throw for 422 yards and five touchdowns while taking more than half of the fourth quarter to slow down and run the clock — as was the case versus Tulane last week — it’s clear there are unseen heights in his game. I’m thrilled to have the privilege to watch what he does next.

Andrew: Ceilings? We don’t need no stinkin’ ceilings! We’ve seen some great players don the black and gold. Cherish it. Relish it. Enjoy it. While a loss might come, it doesn’t take away from the magic that we’re seeing on the field. Records are on pace to be shattered. That doesn’t happen every day. Programs go through cycles, so we need to appreciate when our school is doing well because even the bluest of blue bloods eventually fall.

3) What is one of the Knights’ weaknesses that could be exposed against the Cougars?

Jeff: The secondary. Remember when we thought this was the best unit on the team? Well, a host of injuries and opt-outs have turned UCF’s defensive strength into a liability at times, as we witnessed against Memphis and Tulsa. Houston HC Dana Holgorsen is one of those blood-smelling coaches who pounds a defense’s weakness over and over until you adjust, and I fully expect him to turn Marquez Stevenson loose on Saturday.

Jeremy: Tackling. U of H loves to run the football with 6-foot-3 mobile QB Clayton Tune. He’s not an easy guy to bring down. If I’m Dana Holgorsen, I am running the football down UCF’s throat to limit DG’s possessions and because it’s the most exploitable part of UCF’s defense.

Eric: Pass defense. I wrote earlier about how Houston’s pass defense is among the worst in the NCAA. Well, UCF is not much better. The Knights’ defense rank 84th in pass efficiency and 87th in passing yards allowed out of 101 teams. Injuries and departures have made the secondary very young and thin. That is not something you want to have against a Dana Holgorson-coached offense.

Brian: I guess I’m obligated to mention Dana Holgorsen by his full name in this answer, since everyone else has done it. I cave to peer pressure.

Of course, it’s the pass defense. The offenses aren’t the only reasons why this game has an over-under north of 80. But it’s not just the secondary; UCF’s linebackers have looked uncomfortable in coverage all season, too. I’m intrigued to see what UCF does with cornerback Aaron Robinson — do they have him shadow Stevenson for the second year in a row? Also, a name to watch is safety Derek Gainous. He registered his first career interception last week, and he’s very likely to play a big role in this one.

Andrew: I technically already answered this question. Houston is a pass happy team and they are going to go after UCF’s secondary. It’s going to fall on the secondary to do something...anything. They need to keep Houston’s passing game in front of them and not try to be heroes. They’re going to be tested play after play and cannot let the mistakes pile on. The upperclassmen trio of Richie Grant, Antwan Collier, and Aaron Robinson are going to have to keep everyone else focused. Like Brian said, Robinson can be a big X-factor depending on how they use him. The offense can do them a solid and continue to not over-fast the offense. Last week worked well.

4) Name one Houston player the Knights need to keep an eye on.

Jeff: Marquez Stevenson. If it weren’t for Marlon Williams, he’d be the best receiver in The American. He’s fast, well-seasoned, and dangerous. Plus, he wears an Apple Watch during games:

Jeremy: Senior DE Payton Turner has three sacks in as many games. If he finds the right matchups against inexperienced tackles, it could force Dillon Gabriel into a mistake.

Eric: Senior WR Marquez Stevenson is a two-time All Conference first-team performer and is arguably, along with Marlon Williams, the best WR in AAC. Stevenson led the Cougars last season with 52 receptions for 907 yards and nine touchdowns, the third-most scores in the AAC. Stevenson is also the best kick returner in the conference. He had two return touchdowns last season.

Brian: We’ve paid enough attention to the aerials; let’s go to the ground, where Houston will challenge UCF with senior Kyle Porter, who has taken on 48 touches in Houston’s last two games. He has racked up 241 yards from scrimmage during that span. He is getting a bigger opportunity because Mulbah Car, who muscled his way through the Knights’ defense last year for more than 130 rushing yards, has been bothered by an ankle injury. There’s a chance returns from his two-game absence on Saturday, so UCF’s defense could have its hands full with this 1-2 punch.

Andrew: I’m going to also say WR Marquez Stevenson. He’s that good. I guess, going back to Jeff’s comment about wearing an Apple Watch, he wants to make sure his steps are counted. I’ve refereed flag football before and had well over 10,000 steps in a morning, but I’m definitely curious how many steps Stevenson has in a game.

5) Score prediction.

Jeff: There will be a lot of it.

Jeremy: With the over/under at 82.5, expect a shootout. Knights win, 45-42.

Eric: I discussed how both teams have struggled against the pass. Guess what? This game is a battle between UCF’s No. 1 passing offense in the FBS (435.6 yards per game) vs. Houston’s 14th-ranked passing attack (321.0 ypg) as well as top 2 Quarterbacks in pass efficiency in the American in Dillon Gabriel (170.9) and Clayton Tune (166.8). Expect a lot of deep passes and a lot of points. The defense that can create turnovers ends up winning this one. That’s where UCF has a big edge as the Knights are among the best in the nation with a plus-8 turnover margin, having forced 14 turnovers in five games. Meanwhile, Houston has forced only one turnover while committing six in three games for a minus-5 turnover margin. UCF wins, 56-42.

Brian: Oh, baby:

That’s cute.

Give me the over.

UCF’s last two games had totals of 99 and 85, and that 85 came even though the Knights took their foot off the gas for the majority of the fourth quarter. This total has increased by a full touchdown since the start of the week, but it would honestly need to go up another TD for me to even remotely consider taking the under.

Now, the spread (UCF -2.5) gives me much more pause. When was the last time UCF beat an honest-to-goodness quality team on the road? Maybe last year’s blowout at Temple? The Owls were 5-2 at that point. If not then, you probably have to go back to that 31-30 game at Memphis in 2018 to find a time when UCF prevailed against an opponent that is as threatening as Houston.

UCF has something to prove Saturday.

51-45, Houston.

Andrew: Hoo boy. It’s going to be a scorefest. This one is a bit of a tossup because UCF’s offense rarely makes mistakes and when they do, it’s against good defenses. UCF is not facing a good defense and should be able to throw haymaker after haymaker. UCF has played against offensive juggernauts before and usually found ways to win. Houston is going to try and keep up with the nation’s top passing offense, but will make one mistake too many. UCF, 52-42.