Welcome to the best team you never heard of…until this week.
Ladies and gentlemen, the no. 21 UCF Knights.
Had it not been for a late defeat at the hands of no. 13 South Carolina, UCF would’ve made their season debut in the Top-25 much earlier in 2013. Now, after a resounding 21-point comeback win over no. 8 Louisville, they’ve arrived just before Halloween to induce nightmares for the rest of the AAC.
Earlier this week, interim UConn coach T.J. Weist remarked that this game will be the Huskies’ biggest challenge to date. Given the road atmosphere, recent disappointing losses and talent standing on the other sideline, it’s difficult to disagree. UCF is a balanced, dangerous team that, even with only eight seniors, has proven itself multiple times to be a very mentally tough group in crunch-time.
First and foremost, Knight quarterback Blake Bortles will soon be playing on Sundays.
The debates about his pro prospects, however small they were entering this season, have dwindled in scouting circles to dust.
I can’t tell you how long he’ll suit up or how well the Florida native will perform professionally. But he won’t be done playing football this December or next.
We’ll skip his prototypical size of 6’ 4” and 230 pounds. We won’t even dive into the 1,500 yards, 11 touchdowns, four interceptions and 64.9 completion percentage.
Instead, let’s talk about his passing traits. Bortles possesses a strong arm, throws an accurate ball to all levels of the field and remains very poised in the pocket while rushers close in. Similarly, his eyes are constantly downfield, and in the event open receivers are hard to come by, he scrambles very successfully.
In particular, the redshirt junior does an nice job of putting a little extra behind passes to the wide side of the field so he can defeat tight coverage. On the flip side, Bortles’ touch on throws to the flat or far downfield are also both well above average for your typical college quarterback. Overall, there’s little not to like from this experienced signal caller about to make his 31st game appearance.
The offense Bortles directs is a one-back, spread system that places him almost exclusively in the shotgun. UCF’s most prominent packages feature at least three receivers, as the Knights often swap out their tight end for a fourth wideout. The Knights are extraordinarily deep with pass catchers, and leading receivers J.J. Worton, Breshard Perriman and Rannell Hall are all tall with plus speed.
Perriman plays with exceptional body control and a wide catching radius, which have already helped produce three 100-yard games. Hall remains one of Bortles’ favorite targets, particularly underneath. The redshirt junior Worton sustained a concussion last time out against Louisville and may not be able to suit up Saturday.
Should Worton sit out, the Knights have capable receivers in tight end Justin Tukes and second-string wideouts Jeff Godfrey and Josh Reese. Godfrey and Reese both broke out against the Cardinals in key spots.
The UCF ground attack is run through star back Storm Johnson, who has been described by Weist as a prototypical NFL-style power back. Johnson picks up an average of over five yards per hand-off, usually thanks to his great strength. More importantly, it is his light feet and superb vision that allow him to generate big plays. Oddly enough, these attributes also get him into trouble, as his clearest weakness is a tendency to cut back to run crossfield, instead of north and south.
Johnson's poor habit is partly a product of the Knights' love for calling outside runs, which almost always feature zone-blocking. After a series of perimeter hand-offs, the coaches often reel in their big, barreling back with a run between the tackles to hit the soft middle of the defense. Johnson is backed up by freshman William Stanback, the only other running back to take carries for the team.
Finally, UCF fronts an experienced group of linemen that has allowed only three sacks in its last four games and is headlined by right tackle Chris Martin. At 6’ 5” and 303 pounds, Martin is a very physical run blocker with decent mobility. His long arms aid him in pass protection, another area in which he is very adept. The redshirt senior has swung over to the left side for two starts in 2013, where junior Torrian Wilson is the normal starter. Other linemen of note are newly converted center Joey Grant, who has proven himself a technician at the position and right guard Justin McCray, a mobile blocker that can also play tackle.
UCONN Key to Success: The first ingredient to any underdog’s upset recipe is producing turnovers. This Saturday at noon is certainly no exception. But after that, the Huskies must tackle well in space and mix their coverages. Storm Johnson and nearly every Knight pass catcher can all take it all the way to the house if not brought to the ground upon first contact. Hank Hughes has to vary his calls in hopes of garnering some sort of quarterback pressure to force a bad decision or two, or else the Huskies are finished.
Organized in a 4-3 front, this UCF defense has allowed its fair share of points this season, but also frequently come up big when it has needed to. Most recently, Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater picked the Knights and their pressure gameplan apart en route to a 28-7 third quarter lead. Then, the unit held strong to preserve a win after Bortles and co. rallied for 24 unanswered points.
UCF’s blitz-heavy strategy that night was a far cry different from most of the others it’s employed this season. Typically, the Knights will tinker with the alignment of their four-man line, but stick with a basic rush and differing zone coverages behind it. The philosophy of this defense is that it wants to out-execute its opponents by playing with strong discipline and denying big plays. Thus, it almost encourages offenses into long drives with the idea in mind these lengthy series will eventually yield mistakes. These errors usually come in the form of turnovers, the life blood of this defense’s success.
In cliche' short, the Knights want to “bend but not break”.
Now it’s likely that the Knights will blitz the Huskies, given that every UConn opponent has had success with pressure schemes this season. While the offensive line must be able to protect Boyle, the biggest concern here is the freshman quarterback’s ability to decipher Knight coverages. UCF does a great job of disguising its intent pre-snap (primarily through its safety) by having players hold their pseudo-positions until the last second. Then, their defenders will occupy their designed spots on the field and play sound, fundamental defense.
Should they fool Boyle enough times, he’ll inevitably hand the ball over, and the game will be over before halftime.
Post-disguise, the Knights like to use a lot of single-high coverages, which include variations of Cover 1 and Cover 3. The backbone of these designs is a strong, speedy and versatile linebacking core. Middle linebacker Terrance Plummer is simply a stud against both the run and the pass. Seehis two forced fumbles, a couple of sacks, a pair of interceptions and 53 tackles through six games. Anything you’d want a player in the middle of your defense to do, he can.
Alongside Plummer is strongside ‘backer Troy Gray, who recorded a career-high nine tackles against South Carolina and forced a fumble. The 5’ 11” Michael Easton and redshirt senior Sean Maag have shared the weakside spot, a position that in this defense is frequently responsible for covering slot receivers.
The secondary is led by strong safety Clayton Geathers. Geathers is very physical in run support, which has helped him attain the title of second-leading tackler on the team. Corners Jacoby Glenn and Jordan Ozeities have combined for only one pick this season, but are certainly serviceable for what defensive coordinator Jim Fleming wants to do. Rarely will the Knights call upon a third cornerback, for reasons of depth and preference to stay in their base defense. Free safety Brandon Alexander rounds out the bunch after forcing a key fumble against Louisville.
Entering their 2013 campaign, the Knights knew they faced a big question mark in their defensive line. Through six games, it has more or less been answered. This group is going to be a project all year. It lost three starters from 2012 and since then has struggled to create pressure against opponents that don't wear Memphis uniforms. Their best pure pass rusher, Deion Green, hurt his knee against Louisville and may not be able to take the field Saturday.
Those who are healthy include a pair of 300-pounders in the middle, E.J. Dunston and Demtris Anderson. Back-up tackle Jaryl Mamea made his first start against the Cardinals in place of Anderson. Opposite Green at the other end spot is Thomas Niles. Niles is a half-sack behind the team-lead with two and a half.
UCONN Key to Success: Start fast and go deep. UConn faces so many problems while simply trying to run offense that it can’t afford to spend much energy focusing on how best to attack a sound defense like UCF’s. If they want to succeed, Boyle and co. have to make plays early and hope that the defense can keep them in the game. The best way to put points on the field will be a steady diet of long throws to Geremy Davis. Any hope of playing “keep away” for 60 minutes with a no-huddle, hurry-up is futile. The Huskies have to get points and get them quickly.
PREDICTION: UCF 38 UConn 13
By and large, this UCF team has earned everything it’s received this season with one, glaring exception: fumble luck. The Knights have recovered over 80 percent of their own dropped footballs and better than 75 percent of opponents'. These percentages don’t keep up for an entire season at any level, and this may be the game that luck at last no longer is a lady for the Knights. UConn better hope so, because they’ll need every bit of good fortune to knock off UCF this weekend.
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