Countdown to Kickoff: UCF

GREENVILLE, N.C. -- East Carolina (8-3, 5-2 American Athletic Conference) hosts Central Florida (8-3, 6-1 AAC) for a Thursday night regular-season finale on ESPN.

East Carolina (8-3, 5-2 AAC) aims to keep its hopes for a 10-win season alive and send off its seniors on a high note Thursday when Central Florida (8-3, 6-1 AAC) visits Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The Knights, on the other hand, have their sights set on securing a share of the American Athletic Conference Championship.

This clash will reignite an eight-year Conference USA rivalry. This installment will pit the AAC’s top offense in ECU against its top defense in UCF. The Pirates average 543.8 yards and 37.8 points a game.

The Knights have, on average, held opponents to 271.2 yards and just 16.8 points a game. They come into Thursday’s season finale fresh off a 16-0 shutout of conference and in-state foe South Florida.

“It’s a very good defense,” said quarterback Shane Carden. “They’ve had a good year so far. I’m looking forward to that challenge of our offense going against them.”

UCF leads the AAC in passing offense and has the second-best rush defense. It won’t be easy to get the air or the ground offense going versus the Knights, but ECU will aim to establish the rush early to open up options in its “Air Raid” system.

“It all starts up front,” said fifth-year head coach Ruffin McNeill at his weekly press conference. “Their front seven does a good job of controlling the run. They’re really solid in pass-rush lanes. They’ll blitz a little bit, but they win with one-on-one matchups and they’re able to defend with seven, and rush with four to get pressure.”

One of those one-on-one matchups will likely be UCF defensive back Jacoby Glenn against ECU receiver Justin Hardy. Glenn has 10 pass breakups and six interceptions on the season—both of which lead the conference. Hardy and Glenn are the same size, so whoever can make the bigger plays will come out on top.

ECU will be tested defensively, too. UCF’s offense will bring plenty of physicality that the Pirates will have to match on defense.

“Their running backs run north and south. They don’t dance,” said defensive coordinator Rick Smith. “They put their shoulders down and try to run right over you. They’re physical. The three backs that we’re going to face are all over 210 pounds.”

The Knights will encounter problems trying to run the ball. ECU’s rush defense is the only one better than UCF’s in the conference. On average, the Pirates only allow 3.2 yards a carry and 103.4 yards a game on the ground.

That’s where quarterback Justin Holman comes in. UCF’s passing offense hasn’t been the same without Blake Bortles, but Holman has hit his stride and improved throughout the season.

“I think the quarterback has gotten better each week and he’s got a cannon,” said Smith. “He’s 6-foot-4. We’ll have our hands full like always. We’ve got to be real physical up front. The secondary has to keep the ball in front of them.”

ECU’s secondary will be working without the services of Lamar Ivey after he suffered a wrist injury in the first half versus Tulsa. In his place will be sophomore Terrell Richardson, who impressed the coaching staff in the spring.

“Terrell Richardson was a starter in the spring,” said Smith. “He hadn’t played much all year…he played 44 plays (versus Tulsa). He had a great hit. He hit a kid over the middle and the gold paint came off his helmet!”

Richardson and the Pirate defensive backs will be covering the likes of 6-foot-4 receiver Breshad Perriman. UCF doesn’t have any receivers shorter than six-foot, so their length will be a tough challenge.

Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m. The game will be broadcasted on ESPN and can be heard on the Piraes IMG Network. Follow @InsideECUSports for live updates throughout.

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