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Knee-Jerk Reactions: UCF 20, East Carolina 16

UCF scores the go-ahead touchdown with 20 seconds left to win Mikey Keene’s first game as a starter

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Central Florida
RB Johnny Richardson
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

It took until the very end, but the UCF Knights found just enough offense to defeat the East Carolina Pirates 20-16 to move to 3-2 on the season. It’s Knee-Jerk Reaction time.

The offense really needs Isaiah Bowser back

The offense struggled for the majority of this game. The 3-3 halftime score said it all. The running game was ineffective for most of the game and forced Mikey Keene to throw it more. In the first half, he went 13/19, which is efficient when the ball leaves his hands, but only gaining 72 yards is not. As the game wore on, he showed more poise and precision, including a 20-yard back shoulder dime to Amari Johnson. There were a couple of unlucky drops, but those are going to happen. As head coach Gus Malzahn said, there are going to be some growing pains, which we are seeing. His final line was 23/35 for 194 yards and an interception.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Central Florida
UCF QB Mikey Keene
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

It seems the entire offense has been off. With Isaiah Bowser out, the running game has not been able to find consistency for the second straight game. Luckily, as unveiled during ESPN+’s “Our Time”, Bowser’s injury isn’t season ending. Johnny Richardson was the most successful tonight, but his stats were padded by a 25-yard run to close the half and a 38-yard run in the third quarter. He looked a lot more decisive and balanced in the second half versus the first. When he gets to the edge and can turn upfield, watch out. Richardson added a 49-yard catch and run in the fourth quarter while UCF was down 16-10.

Jaylon Robinson missed his second game as well. The receivers on the field struggled to create separation and passes were relegated to the short and medium thirds. There were a select few deeper passes, but they didn’t yield anything. Coach Malzahn made it a point to get Ryan O’Keefe more involved in the offense and had a game high 13 targets and 10 catches.

The defense kept the team in the game.

I didn’t think I’d be saying that, but here we are. The defense found a spark and played their best game of 2021 by a wide margin. Gunslinging quarterback Holton Ahlers was kept in check, going 20/32 for 219 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He was sacked four times. Ahlers had over 1,200 yards coming into the game, so the Knights were able to keep him under his average.

The defense also did an outstanding job keeping running back Keaton Mitchell from running wild. In his previous game against Tulane, Mitchell ran for 225 yards and had been averaging around 9.6 yards a rush this season. UCF kept him to 17 carries for 65 yards.

A lot of this had to do with defensive scheming. The Knights played a lot of nickel defensive with two linebackers and five defensive backs. The linebackers rotated Bryson Armstrong, Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste, and the returning Tatum Bethune. This week, the team lost Eriq Gilyard to the transfer portal, but Bethune had an outstanding game, leading all players with 17 tackles. The next closest player on either team only had 6.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Central Florida
LB Tatum Bethune and Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

With the linebackers playing at a high level, it allowed the fifth defensive back help against the gunslinging Ahlers. Brandon Adams and Quadric Bullard were busy making tackles while Davonte Brown made a couple of key pass breakups. The defensive line helped too, sacking Ahlers four times and causing disruptions in the pocket.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Central Florida
UCF reacts after scoring the winning touchdown
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Special teams were indeed special

The special teams unit had a bounce back week. Other than a roughing the punter call on a block attempt, the UCF special teams played a great game. Daniel Obarski was perfect. He went 2/2 in his field goal attempts, including a career-long 40-yarder, He also hit his lone extra point. Those points ended up being the difference in the game much like they were the lack of points were the difference last week. Punter Andrew Osteen had 6 punts with an average of 41.2 yards.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Central Florida
UCF WR Amari Johnson
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati Looms

This was a crucial win. UCF is now 3-2 going into their biggest game of the season, going to Cincinnati to play a top 5 ranked Cincinnati Bearcats that will most likely move up to 4th after thumping Temple 52-3. There are players, coaches, and fans who still distinctly remember how 2017 and 2018 went. While the spread will be heavily in favor of Cincinnati, this is the chance for UCF to make a very loud statement. At this juncture, UCF is in control of their conference destiny and only needs three more wins to become bowl eligible for a school record sixth consecutive season.

Stat Leaders

Passing
UCF: Mikey Keene: 23/35 for 194 yards, 0 TD, 1 Int
ECU: Holton Ahlers: 20/32 for 219 yards, 1 TD, 1 Int

Rushing
UCF: Johnny Richardson: 16 carries for 104 yards, 1 TD
ECU: Rahjai Harris: 13 carries for 73 yards, 0 TD

Receiving
UCF: Ryan O’Keefe: 10 catches for 73 yards, 0 TD
ECU: Tyler Snead: 6 catches for 82 yards, 0 TD

Game Notes

  • UCF’s streak of scoring at least one passing and one rushing touchdown snapped at 53 straight games. This streak did lead the nation.
  • UCF has tied the series 10-10.
  • UCF has played East Carolina more than any other team in its football history.
  • Sorry it’s not my best, but I was mistaken for Eric Lopez again.