Penalties. The Knights turned the ball over three times. The offense struggled to run the ball consistently, failed to accomplish anything in the middle third of the field, and commonly played at less than its signature, up-tempo pace. UCF wasn’t quick enough to block Tulsa linebackers Zaven Collins and Justin Wright as they shot through gaps in the offensive line to blow up running plays or apply pressure to Dillon Gabriel.
Penalties. UCF’s defense couldn’t stop QB Zach Smith after a scoring drive late in the first half and were worn down by Tulsa’s big running backs in the second half. The Knights were also diminished by injuries to multiple starters on each side of the ball.
But as you may have guessed, the top-line concern is UCF’s astounding penalty total. Specifically, the false starts. The Knights have already been flagged 45 times in three games, and 25 of those 45 are false starts. It’s an eyesore that has become only more glaring, beginning with six false starts at Georgia Tech and then eight at East Carolina. The false starts were a central topic of discussion leading into the Tulsa game, but it made no difference. The Knights were called for 11 false starts against the Golden Hurricane and 19 penalties overall.
Matthew Lee was the center of attention, literally and figuratively, as he committed six penalties, including five false starts. But Heupel reiterated Thursday something he and Gabriel said moments after Saturday’s letdown: This is about much more than Lee.
“Obviously, some things on the other side of the line of scrimmage have caused some of the (false start) issues, but it’s been a little of everybody. It’s been us up front, but it’s been Dillon maybe in his communication at times. It’s been our skill players jumping a couple of weeks ago as well or maybe not having a guy set. You add up all those issues and you’ve got way too many things to overcome during the course of a 60-minute ballgame.
“We’ve got to correct that to keep us in manageable situations, allow us to play ahead of the chains, play with tempo, play the way that we want to play. This last Saturday night, we did not do that. Everybody’s got to take ownership of it.”
Although Lee is an easy target, he is far from the only culprit whose mistakes have sidetracked UCF’s offense. Nine players — six O-linemen and three wideouts — have committed a false start, and seven of those nine have been whistled multiple times. That has forced the Knights into lengthy down-and-distance situations and, according to Heupel, kept the offense from rolling at its usual break-neck pace.
Or maybe the pace itself is the problem? Running back Otis Anderson suggested that on Saturday.
“Trying to push the tempo so much that we’re not making sure we’re set,” he said when asked about the rash of pre-snap flags. “It can be just one person that’s just getting to the line and getting ready, but he’s not ready for a second. That pretty much causes the penalties that we get.”
Whatever the case, the Knights have some extra time to fix what ails them. Heupel admitted that there is typically a desire to play as soon as possible in the aftermath of a loss. But this team needs the extra work with just snapping the ball. This week also provides more time for the young players, including eight true freshmen who have already seen a significant number of snaps, to brush up on the Knights’ schemes and their fundamentals.
Above all, the bye gives the Knights more time to get healthy, and they desperately need that. There are at least nine experienced contributors who either didn’t play versus Tulsa, ostensibly because of an injury, or didn’t return to action after picking up an injury during the game:
WR Tre Nixon
OL Parker Boudreaux
DL Landon Woodson
DB Richie Grant
DB Antwan Collier
RB Greg McCrae
RB Bentavious Thompson
RB Otis Anderson
WR Marlon Williams
That’s a big list in terms of size and impact. Injury updates are a point of secrecy for Heupel, so odds are we probably won’t know the true status of these players before next Saturday.
For what it’s worth, Heupel did say Williams “seems to be doing pretty well. Expect him to be ready to go when we get going next week.” Williams was injured on the last play of the Tulsa game. As Williams came down from trying to haul in Gabriel’s Hail Mary, wide receiver Amari Johnson landed on top of him, leaving Williams flat on his back for a handful of minutes. Ultimately, Williams walked slowly off the field accompanied by two trainers, each holding one of his arms.
The Knights as a team hurt themselves with all of their mistakes and were left emotionally wounded by the defeat.
“From our kids, yeah, they were disappointed. Yes, it hurts. If it’s never that, then you’re really in trouble,” Heupel said. “Our kids do take it personal. At the same time, they came back and they’ve been great all week.”
The players will get a couple of days off this weekend before returning to practice Monday in preparation to face the Memphis Tigers. Come next Saturday, we’ll get to see just how much they were able to fix during this down time.
“We’ve got to do things better than we did this past Saturday, things that are correctable. We’ve got a lot of really good football players that will be ready to go play next Saturday though.”