In general, I think the UCF Knights played better in their second game than in their first. Even with their 336 false starts, this was a more complete effort than their opener at Georgia Tech. The offense had fewer lulls. The defense was more aggressive up front and more sound throughout. So, the answers to the questions I presented last week are all fairly positive.
1. How will UCF try to contain East Carolina Pirates QB Holton Ahlers?
The Knights’ defensive line coach Shane Burnham said this week that quarterbacks who are able to do damage from outside the pocket “always give me indigestion on Friday nights.” Burnham must have been feeling queasy after ECU’s first drive Saturday.
Ahlers was perfect on the opening possession, going 5-for-5 through the air, running once for 19 yards (almost running over safety Antwan Collier in the process) and ending it with a touchdown. Ahlers was able to escape UCF’s defensive front a couple of times to pick up first downs with either his arm or his legs.
From there, however, the defense bowed up. Ahlers completed just 9 of 24 passes after that initial scoring drive. As the day wore on, the Knights wore down Ahlers’ protection as UCF rotated a double-digit number of defensive linemen. They were able to sack Ahlers twice and hit him a bunch more in the second half.
“We cut [Ahlers] down a couple of times and he was slow to get up,” Burnham said Tuesday. “That’s what I like the most of what I’ve seen out of the defensive unit, the physical nature at which we’re playing right now.”
Those hits and pressures eventually forced Ahlers to make some bad decisions, like this up-for-grabs ball that was picked off by safety Richie Grant in the third quarter.
2. Will UCF’s defense clean up its communication issues?
We definitely didn’t see the Knights get lost in coverage as often as they did in their first game. There was one clear busted coverage of a tight end over the middle of the field that resulted in a 14-yard gain, but that happened early in the fourth quarter, so it was completely inconsequential.
Against Georgia Tech, the Knights didn’t match up with running backs at times when they went on pass routes. The Pirates didn’t utilize their RBs much in their aerial attack — they completed a total of four passes between their three backs — but at least there was a defender in the area to try and stop them every time. That wasn’t the case in Atlanta. Hooray, progress.
Now, I said the defense was there to try and stop those RBs. That’s because when Ahlers did flare a pass out to his backs in the flat, UCF missed some tackles. It happened on the first drive of the game as ECU’s Darius Pinnix Jr. stiff-armed Randy Charlton and then got past Collier for a 17-yard touchdown. In the second quarter, a very similar play call and a missed tackle by Eriq Gilyard turned what should have been a short gain into a catch-and-run of 13 yards for RB Keaton Mitchell.
Nothing is perfect, but UCF’s defense certainly cleaned up some stuff between Week 1 and Week 2. Some other fixible issues still bear tracking.
Ryan O’Keefe: You’re up
O’Keefe, stepping in for the injured Tre Nixon, did make some plays early. On the first series, he gained 17 yards on third and 5 to give the Knights a first down after they set themselves back to first and 30 with all those false starts. Later in that drive, he gained 20 yards on a screen and would have netted him a touchdown, but he just got tripped up by the last man he had to beat.
I don’t think he played at all on the second series and then wasn’t targeted during the third. O’Keefe’s last meaningful play came during the fourth series, when he couldn’t hang on to a fourth-and-7 pass that would have given the Knights a first down. But that play was more memorable for what happened afterward, as the Pirates reacted as if O’Keefe had fumbled, picked up the ball and during the return, Dillon Gabriel got kneed in the head. This subsequently turned Gabriel into a cheat code.
We wouldn’t see O’Keefe again until UCF had pulled its starters late in the fourth quarter. He was replaced in three- and four-receiver sets by freshman Ja’Cyais Credle, who played nearly every snap over the game’s final 40 minutes, caught a couple of short passes and also delivered some strong blocks.
On Monday, head coach Josh Heupel downplayed any insinuation that O’Keefe was benched for his drop. Rather, Heupel said he wanted to give Credle more playing time because of his work during the practice week.
“We have a ton of confidence in Stretch (Credle) as we do in Ryan,” he said. “... I thought Ryan performed extremely well when given the opportunity. You’ll see a rotation as those guys play. We’ve played more four-wide receiver sets probably than we did a year ago. So more and more guys will have those opportunities as you get into drives and guys sub in and out.”
4. Will UCF’s defense stay locked in during the second half?
I shouldn’t have singled out the defense here. I did so as a reaction to a quote last week from secondary coach Willie Martinez. Although that side of the ball did allow 22 points to East Carolina in the second half of last year’s meeting, that’s only half the reason why the 41-28 final score was closer than it needed to be. The other half is that the offense scored just six points.
So, really, the question should have been: Will UCF stay locked in during the second half?
For the most part, yeah. Again, nothing is ever perfect, but unlike the 2019 matchup, UCF’s offense kept cooking through the third quarter and then tacked on a touchdown from freshman running back Johnny Richardson in the fourth. The defense, as stated above, really dialed up the pressure after halftime. The Pirates did score a couple of fourth-quarter TDs, but one of them came with 19 seconds remaining in what was a 30-point blowout. The people who cared the most about that score are probably in Vegas.