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Knee-Jerk Reactions: UCF 58, South Florida 46

The Knights survive a defensive meltdown to retain the War on I-4 trophy

Central Florida v South Florida
UCF WRs Tre Nixon and Jacob Harris
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The War on I-4, like many other rivalry games, can be unpredictable. Despite the UCF Knights’ defense failing in spectacular fashion and allowing South Florida to play like they had the Knight’s high octane offense, the good guys prevailed with a 58-46 win to finish the regular season 6-3 and keep the War on I-4 trophy for another year. It’s knee-jerk reaction time.

The missing Milton hype machine

Something went wrong somewhere. Dillon Gabriel made some cryptic message about the prospect of McKenzie Milton playing. No one squashed it. Fast forward a few days and the buzz is on a national scale. ESPN is talking about it, The Athletic is talking about it, we all were talking about it.

When the players were in Tampa warming up, we all found out it was never meant to be and Milton was not planning on playing. For the fans, the media, and the world at large, this was a major letdown. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t play. It was more about no one stopping the buildup of buzz and expectation. Now, we have fans and media not happy. The question then became was this a Heupel or Milton decision.

Central Florida v South Florida
UCF QB McKenzie Milton
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The truth is that it was a Milton decision. Milton never planned on playing. He has said on multiple occasions that he won’t play until he’s at 100%. According to ESPN, Milton said he’s around 85% or so and didn’t see a point in playing before he was ready. As I stated in the weekly Roundtable ahead of the game, Milton has not faced live tackling yet and probably played a role in his decision.

While I do not blame Dillon Gabriel or Josh Heupel for the decision, someone...anyone should have squashed it before it got to game day. It dwarfed the game and ticked a lot of people off.

Next man up

UCF vs USF
UCF WR Jacob Harris
Photo by Conor Kvatek/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

Aside from Milton, UCF was missing a couple of key offensive pieces in Marlon Williams and Otis Anderson. You know, the team’s leading receiver and running back. As coaches often say, “next man up”. While Tre Nixon had his best game since returning from a broken collarbone, it was Jacob Harris who really rose to the occasion. Harris led the team in receiving and had three touchdowns. Harris is very tall at 6ft5 and difficult to cover. His rawness as a wide receiver is his downfall as he’s prone to bad drops. Tonight, this Knight did shine.

Carrying the load for Anderson was of course Greg McCrae, but more especially Bentavious Thompson. McCrae broke out of his multi-game funk and led all running backs with 130 yards, but Thompson was a force to be reckoned with later in the game as he gashed and bruised a tired Bulls defense.

Central Florida v South Florida
UCF RB Bentavious Thompson
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

A defensive failure to launch

This game was ugly on the defensive side of the ball. REALLY UGLY. I don’t think I’m highlighting how ugly this performance was.

Coming into the game, South Florida was ranked 107th in offense. You wouldn’t have guessed it based on how the game looked. The Bulls looked more UCF-like than the Knights did. Jordan McCloud outdueled Dillon Gabriel 404-336 with both throwing for four touchdowns, running for one, but Gabriel threw an interception. Both the Bulls and Knights each had a pair of 100 yard rushers on the day and surprisingly, both teams only had one player with more than 100 yards receiving. Overall, it was 646-577 in favor of the Bulls. Yeesh.

Central Florida v South Florida
UCF DE Landon Woodson
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The Knights defenders were routinely out of position, caught flat-footed, bit on stutter steps and fakes, and didn’t use proper tackling technique that we’ve all seen them do before. What went wrong? Was it a Thanksgiving hangover? Was it fatigue? Was it the lack of depth catching up? Was it bad coaching? As defensive end Landon Woodson said, the defense’s struggles were due to a lack of communication. Football is a mental game. If your head isn’t in it, the physical superiority doesn’t mean anything. This game is a great example of that.

Now what?

The regular season is over. UCF cannot qualify for the conference championship game. Now, we play the waiting game to see where the Knights go for a bowl game...if there is a bowl game.

The American Athletic Conference has a possible tie-in the following bowls:

Frisco Bowl

Boca Raton Bowl

Montgomery Bowl

New Mexico Bowl

Gasparilla Bowl

Cure Bowl

First Responder Bowl

Military Bowl

Armed Forces Bowl

Birmingham Bowl

Outside of the Military, Montgomery, and Birmingham Bowls, the other bowl games are pool games with other conferences, so there is no guarantee that an AAC team will be represented. Most of these are owned by ESPN, so there is an expectation that they will work very hard to keep these games going as opposed to games run by non-profits which have been quicker to cancel their bowl games for 2020. Will UCF accept a bowl game this year? In any other year, that’s a preposterous question. Stay tuned for the updated Week 13 AAC bowl predictions that will be coming out soon.

A man of the people

A little something new this game was that we opened up the Knee-Jerk Reactions to fan questions. Tune into Knight Shift after the game on the Black and Gold Banneret YouTube channel. You can also get the link on @UCF_Banneret on Twitter.

One question was in regards to what to do about the defense for 2021?

The Knights are at a crossroads. Defensive coordinator Randy Shannon’s unconventional three year contract is up. This gives UCF some flexibility. Shannon’s contract cost UCF $1.3 million this year($1M for the season and a $300k retention bonus). The prior two years were mostly paid by the University of Florida due to their buyout and right of offset from his previous gig. With the athletic department in a budget crunch, UCF cannot continue to pay Shannon this kind of money. He either has to take a pay cut or UCF has to move on. Something to consider is that the defense failed to deliver this year. That is not completely the fault of the coaching staff. The defensive two deep got hit hard with covid opt-outs. A combination of injuries and team discipline issues left the defense with a young and raw squad. That part is the responsibility of the coaching staff. Does UCF retain Shannon? Do they let him walk and promote Willie Martinez, a former UCF defensive coordinator? Do they hire a new defensive coordinator from outside of the program? Will the Knights continue to employ a nickel defense? Will they convert to a more conventional 4-3 defense? These are questions the offseason will answer.

If you have questions in the future, the Black and Gold Banneret and I want to hear from you.

Stat Leaders

Passing
UCF: Dillon Gabriel: 22/36 for 336 yards, 4 TD, 1 Int
South Florida: Jordan McCloud: 32/46 for 404 yards, 4 TD, 0 Int

Rushing
UCF: Greg McCrae: 25 carries for 130 yards, 1 TD
South Florida: Kelley Joiner: 14 carries for 116 yards, 0 TD

Receiving
UCF: Jacob Harris: 5 catches for 110 yards, 3 TD
South Florida: Bryce Miller: 11 catches for 121 yards, 2 TD

Game Notes

  • In the last 47 games for UCF, they have had 45 games of 30 points or more..
  • UCF has scored 24 points in 48 straight games. This is the second longest streak in the country.
  • Dillon Gabriel has passed for a touchdown in 22 straight games. This is tied with Daunte Culpepper for third in school history.
  • With Gabriel’s 2nd touchdown pass, he passes Blake Bortles for 5th(56) in school history.
  • Gabriel threw his seventh 300 yard game of the year, which ties the school record with Daunte Culpepper(1998), Ryan Schneider(2002), and McKenzie Milton(2017)
  • UCF has had at least one passing and one rushing touchdown for 48 straight games. This streak leads the nation.
  • Greg McCrae scored his 28th touchdown in the fourth quarter, which passes Alex Haynes for fourth on the school list.
  • McCrae’s 130 yards gives him 2,543 on his career, moving him up to 5th all-time at UCF. He passed by Lavatius Murray, Brynn Harvey, and Adrian Killins as a result of this game.
  • McCrae ran for his 7th career 100 yard rushing game. This puts him in a four way tie for 7th with Elgin Davis, Gerod Davis, and Brynn Harvey.
  • Punter Andrew Osteen has moved up to 9th in number of punts with 92, passing Jim Hogan. His 3.960 total punts yardage passes Russ Salerno for 8th. Punters need love too.
  • UCF is now tied in the series 6-6 against South Florida.
  • Sorry this isn’t my best. I’ll try harder next time.