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Round Table: First Bounce vs. South Carolina State

The Banneret Crew convenes to give their takes on Game #1

UCF Spring Game
Gus Malzahn
Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

It’s finally here!

The UCF Knights open the 2022 football season at home in FBC Mortgage Stadium against the defending HBCU National Champion South Carolina State Bulldogs, and we’ve got plenty of questions to answer.

Without further adieu, we give you our very first gameday round table:

Does anything about South Carolina State have you feeling concerned?

Cricket Celebration Bowl - South Carolina State v Jackson State
#1 Shaquan Davis
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Kyle: The greatest thing to be concerned about is an overreaction. If for whatever reason the team comes out flat or gives up garbage time points, here come those UCF “hater-fans” ready to start the “Fire Gus” posts on social media regardless of all that he’s done for the program with only one full football season on campus.

Bryson: South Carolina State has some solid momentum coming into this season after defeating Jackson State, and head coach Deion Sanders, in the Celebration Bowl. Offensively, the team returns RB Kendrell Flowers, who had the 3rd-most rushing yards in the MEAC last season, and WR Shaquan Davis, who led the MEAC in receiving yards last season. While the Bulldogs might be underestimated, being an FCS team, they can provide a quality litmus test for UCF.

That said, the greatest extent of my concern for this game is that South Carolina State could score its first-ever points against the Knights. As long as the team goes through the motions and does not make any drastic mistakes, it will be fine.

Derek: I just want us to end the game with no injuries. It would be great if we covered the spread (37.5 last time I looked), but I’m not concerned about the win/loss outcome. I will be interested to see how our linebackers look, since other than Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste, there are a lot of new faces to that position group.

Noah: Not meeting expectations. Facing an FCS school always has its concerns, and UCF should not take it for granted. UCF needs to show the nation and the voters they mean business. UCF could very well end up in the Top 25 by the end of Week 4, and the road starts with SC State.

Jeff: I’ve been saying it all week: This ain’t no cupcake. The last time everyone didn’t take them seriously, they throttled Deion Sanders’ Jackson State team in the Celebration Bowl. Something about FCS teams always punching up gives me the creeps. We have to take care of the ball and get out quick because the longer you let a well-coached team like the Bulldogs hang around, the more confidence they get, and the more trouble you cause for yourself.

What do you want to see from John Rhys Plumlee on Thursday?

John Rhys Plumlee
Photo: Derek Warden

Kyle: Considering the opponent, I’d like to see Plumlee lead an offense that’s good for at least 10 yards per attempt. UCF will certainly run the ball a healthy amount, but if I’m a Knight fan, I want to see at least one 40+ yard bomb (ideally to Ryan O’Keefe or Kobe Hudson) that brings up the average yards per attempt to the desired spot regardless of the running backs gashing yards underneath on the ground. Ideally, JRP is good for at least 150 yards all-purpose before halftime (assuming he gets pulled then) with around 100 yards passing and 50 yards rushing.

Bryson: I want to see him walk off the field healthy. If there is one thing about mobile quarterbacks that make me nervous, it is their greater risk for injury. UCF fans know this all too well.

While getting to see Plumlee play live for the first time will be eye-opening, I also don’t want to see him put himself in a bad spot and get himself hurt in the first game of the season.

Other than that, I’d like to see him continue the momentum from the Spring Game when it comes to his passing. That’s been his biggest question mark, and he can at least quiet down the doubters with a mistake-free performance Thursday night.

Derek: I want to see him take his last snap sometime in the mid-second quarter and then spend the rest of the (k)night watching Mikey and Tommy finish the game out strong. I expect Gus to keep the play calling vanilla in order to limit Louisville’s game tape, so the less they get to see of JRP, the better.

More to the point, though, I want to see him making quick, smart decisions with the ball, and when he throws it, he is accurate. Since I was able to be at the spring game, I’m not too concerned about the latter.

Noah: JRP needs to prove his haters wrong. Come out with a BOOM! Use your weapons and do your best to set up a successful season. I can’t wait to see him work his magic.

Jeff: Competence through the air. We know he can run. Even if he lights it up, it won’t be enough for some of the haters out there. But he’s a mature enough player that it won’t get to him. As long as we don’t see any major deficiencies in the passing game, I’ll be satisfied.

Which defensive player(s) do you expect to have a big game?

Kyle: I’m looking for Ricky Barber in the middle to eviscerate the opposing interior line and send their backfield into a panic. If that gets established early, that will put the Knight into a dominant position to force turnovers in a way that they didn’t last year. Assuming that happens quickly, that will also give defensive coordinator Travis Williams

Bryson: For the starters, I’ll take LB Jason Johnson. He’s had a quiet fall camp, but DC Travis Williams said he’s been doing his job and the team has “thrown a lot” at him. So, I think Thursday night will be a coming-out party for the Eastern Illinois transfer to show exactly why he was selected All-OVC First Team last season.

As for the backups, since I imagine we’ll see those before the night is out, give me DB Nikai Martinez, who is backing up Justin Hodges in the “Knight” position. In the complete opposite manner to Johnson, we’ve been hearing about this true freshman all camp from different voices on the defense. I think Thursday night will serve as Martinez’s grand introduction to Knight Nation, a preview for what is to come from him during these next four years.

Ricky Barber
Photo: Derek Warden

Derek: Like what Kyle said, Ricky Barber and the interior defensive line. We have some decent depth there, so I would like to see this group get a lot of push all game. Games are won and lost in the trenches, so if this group struggles Thursday night, it could make for a frustrating season.

Noah: Davonte Brown is the focal point of UCF’s secondary. I expect for him to have a lockdown game and stymie SC State’s pass game.

Jeff: This is one of those games where the front seven has to dictate the terms, and when it comes to that group, I look forward to seeing Tre’mon Morris-Brash wreak absolute havoc in the backfield and in coverage.

If you’re Gus, do you play conservatively or open it up a bit to see what your guys can do?

Gus Malzahn
Photo: Derek Warden

Kyle: Yes — which is to say a bit of both. While keeping the offense a bit “vanilla” is good to help certain groups lock in during their first live action, JRP and the receivers also need the opportunity to get sharp in their own right. Throwing in a play-action pass for a bomb down the field to show the world (especially Week 2 opponent Louisville) might be enough to keep opposing coaches from aggressively trying to attack the ground game. Any opponent that does that with this corp of UCF running backs makes it a better day (provided the line does their job) for the offense.

Defensively, I would also avoid using any exotic blitzes or looks so that Cardinal quarterback Malik Cunningham has less opportunity to prepare for these while taking snaps for UCF in the Lousiville game

Bryson: I wouldn’t unveil anything too proprietary, since I imagine they would like to save that for the Louisville game. Ultimately, South Carolina State gives the team a chance to nail down the more fundamental stuff, so if you call that playing conservatively then I guess that’s my choice.

However, I could see the Knights starting the game more aggressively on the first 2-3 drives to get some things nailed down against a live opponent, and that’s where Malzahn can really see what his players can do playing at full throttle.

Derek: Gus should channel his inner Tim Salem: run it left on first down, right on second, and play action pass on third. Let’s just not punt as often as we did in 2008, after Kevin Smith left for the NFL draft.

Defensively, T-WIll should keep it simple - rush only with the front 4, don’t blitz if necessary. If our secondary is a good as we’ve heard, then no special coverages need to be called.

Noah: Open the floodgates in the first half. Reign hellfire upon them. Play conservatively in the second half and give your reserves a chance at some action.

Jeff: UCF has enough of a talent advantage where they should not have to show any cards on film in order to do what they need to get done. Put it this way: If Gus has to bust open the trick play bag, something terrible has happened.

Score Prediction!

Kyle: UCF 31, SC State 0. And UCF fans will wonder why it wasn’t 38-0 for the third time in a row.

Bryson: UCF 38, SC State 10.

Derek: UCF 44, SC State 7.

Noah: UCF 52, SC State 7.

Jeff: UCF 38, SC State 7