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Checklist Review from UCF vs. Georgia Tech

Dillon Gabriel was fantastic, and a star was born along the defensive line

True freshman defensive end Josh Celiscar (center) celebrates with linebacker Eriq Gilyard after getting an interception in the second quarter of UCF’s win at Georgia Tech on Sept. 19.
Photo: UCF Athletics

For as lopsided as the 49-21 final score appears, Saturday’s game at Georgia Tech definitely had its peaks and valleys, no?

The Yellow Jackets within the first minute, giving many UCF Knights fans visions of doomed 2019 trips to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Tulsa, I’m sure. But UCF seemed completely unfazed and shot back with the next 28 points. All of a sudden, it looked like the game was over before halftime.

Not so fast. Georgia Tech scored again just before the break — and then it took basically the entire third quarter for anyone to make the next move. That 15-minute segment featured takeaways on back-to-back plays, four punts, three turnovers on downs and zero points. In the wake of an action-heavy first half, the third quarter was like the guy at a party who drank too much too soon, got sloppy real quick and passed out at 10.

The Yellow Jackets pulled within seven with a touchdown early in the fourth, but the Knights didn’t let their clearly inferior opponent hang around for long, breaking the plane on their next three possessions.

There was plenty to watch during UCF’s 2020 debut, but let’s circle back to the four topics/questions/things I was most interested to watch heading into this game.

1. Will we see a better, less mistake-prone Dillon Gabriel on the road?

Oh my, yes. First of all, Gabriel was extremely complimentary of his offensive line on Saturday night, and he was right to be. He praised the front five for how they adapted when Georgia Tech came out with defensive formations that UCF had not seen before. And that line did an exceptional job of giving Gabriel wide, clean pockets. He was sacked twice on the day, but only one of those could be credited to the O-line; the other sack came when Greg McCrae couldn’t stop a charging Charlie Thomas, who recorded both of the Yellow Jackets’ sacks.

But when Gabriel has time and space to throw, he is and was an absolute marksman. There are plenty of examples, but let’s just focus on two touchdown throws in this highlight video below. They come at 0:48 and 2:25. They come off the same play, on a pass intended for the same receiver (Marlon Williams), going up against the same defensive back.

Both those throws are made into such small and tight windows, but Gabriel makes them look easy. They are pretty indefensible.

Not only was Gabriel brilliant as a passer, he was unleashed as a runner, picking up yards and first downs on a handful of designed draws and a few other runs that came from good reads out of the run-pass option. Take away the sack yardage, and Gabriel ran for 47 yards on six carries. He ran twice on UCF’s first possession of the game and clearly caught the defense off guard. Plus, he showed some decent moves in the open field. Forcing opposing defenses to respect that aspect of UCF’s RPOs is just going to make this offense that much tougher to stop.

“Dillon’s feet is a weapon for us,” head coach Josh Heupel said Monday.

Lastly, I wanted to mention Gabriel’s two turnovers, only one of which (a fumble) was really his fault. His interception occurred when Georgia Tech got two free runners, and one of them hit Gabriel’s hand as he was targeting Williams deep down the field.

The fumble happened as UCF was on its way to making the score 28-7. As he’s picking up a first down with his legs, Gabriel gets stripped around Tech’s 20-yard line. I think it was noteworthy to see how Gabriel moved on from that momentum-changing play so quickly. The Knights got the ball back one minute later off of an interception, and it took Gabriel about 80 seconds to cash it in, hooking up with Tre Nixon for a TD on another perfect throw.

2. What (and whom) will we see in the trenches?

As expected, UCF cycled through a lot of bodies on the defensive line. At least 11, from my count. Maybe more. They started out with defensive ends Stephon Zayas and Randy Charlton, defensive tackles Kenny Turnier and Anthony Montalvo. By the third series, that front four had been changed out: DEs Tre’mon Morris-Brash and Josh Celiscar; DTs Cam Goode and Noah Hancock.

The line as a whole was fine. They got gashed by being too aggressive and not maintaining the edges on running plays sometimes. But they sure do know how to get their hands up. Hancock blocked a field goal in the second quarter, and Charlton got his mitts on two passes, one of which ended up in Celiscar’s hands.

Obviously, Celiscar was the buzzworthy name among the entire defense afterwards. He forced and recovered a fumble on his first series as a collegiate player. Then he had the awareness to pluck a deflected pass out of the air right as he arrived at the quarterback. And he was denied at least half credit on a tackle for loss in the second half.

We knew Celiscar would play. We didn’t know he would make that kind of impact in his first game. But it didn’t surprise senior linebacker Eric Mitchell.

“Since we got back (on campus), that guy has been a monster,” the senior said of the true freshman Tuesday.

The offensive line began the game with this lineup: left tackle Edward Collins, left guard Samuel Jackson, center Matthew Lee, right guard Lokahi Pauole, right tackle Marcus Tatum. Guard Parker Boudreaux tweeted before the game that he couldn’t play because he was in the concussion protocol.

I was a little surprised that Cole Schneider wasn’t one of the starting guards, but it doesn’t really matter; he still played a majority of the snaps, and he was instrumental in UCF’s two longest runs of the game. On McCrae’s 21-yard touchdown and Otis Anderson’s 23-yard scamper that set up his own TD two plays later, both men ran through the left side of the line and past the blocks set by Collins, Schneider and Lee.

One more note: Jackson played at least 15 snaps each at four different spots — left guard, left tackle, right guard and right tackle. Having such a versatile lineman is important in every season, but especially this one.

3. Which of the Knights’ young DBs stand out?

Can we put an “N/A” here? Georgia Tech’s offense doesn’t really want to stretch the field, so UCF’s top freshmen cornerbacks — starter Corey Thornton and backups Davonte Brown and Justin Hodges — weren’t challenged often. Quarterback Jeff Sims found success between the numbers with some of his throws. Whenever he did try to go deep against one of UCF’s new DBs, he flat-out missed.

In the second quarter, Sims had Ahmarean Brown wide open, deep down the right seam. The speedy wide receiver had beaten Thornton by couple of steps, but he was given no chance on a ball that was thrown too far and too inside. Sims later sailed a third-down pass over another open man in the middle of the field with Thornton in coverage. Thornton’s best play of the day was stone-walling Sims three yards shy of the marker as the QB tried to run for a first down on fourth and 11 in the fourth quarter.

Davonte Brown got lost in coverage once, caught between a running back in the flat and a wideout in the end zone. Both were open by at least five yards, so it wasn’t just Brown’s fault. If Sims had gone over the top, he might have had a touchdown. Instead, he saw neither man and came up short on a fourth-and-9 scramble attempt. Sims, a true freshman, is much more of an athlete than a quarterback right now.

These cornerbacks will definitely be tested more often by East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers this Saturday. Through his final four games of last season, Ahlers averaged more than 400 yards passing.

4. Which new skill player announces his presence immediately?

Jaylon Robinson was the right answer. Lining up in Gabriel Davis’ old spot as the X/split end receiver, he took advantage of Georgia Tech’s soft coverage in the first half as he caught a bunch of intermediate passes on option routes. The Yellow Jackets’ defense, so frightened of letting Robinson get behind them, gave him so much cushion that those throws from Gabriel to Robinson were easy money.

The Oklahoma transfer also made a nice diving catch along the sidelines in the second quarter and followed that up on the next play with a 12-yard gain on a screen where you really saw his special acceleration. Then, just as the corner started creeping in, Robinson bolted down the field to make a 48-yard reception on the play immediately before Gabriel’s fumble.

Robinson was shut out in the second half as Tech basically bracketed him with a safety over the top. But he left his mark after catching six balls on six targets for 105 yards in that opening half. With Tre Nixon likely lost for a long period of time, expect more big numbers from “Flash.”

The two other new offensive weapons I kept tabs on — freshman running back Johnny Richardson and freshman wide receiver Ja’Cyais Credle — didn’t have the opportunities to shine like Robinson, but each man had a moment. Richardson picked up 24 yards on two carries near the end of the game. He showcased some of his track speed as he got around the corner for a 17-yard gain on his first carry.

I think Credle played only on special teams, but he was the man who recovered Georgia Tech’s surprise onsides kick attempt at the start of the third quarter.