With that, let's take a look at what went right and wrong during the game;
The Cougars scored a season low 14 points and had their second lowest output total yardage wise with only 367 yards (231 passing, 136 rushing) against a simple yet very effective UCF defense. Starting out very slowly behind two ‘three and outs' to open the game, the offense produced only 131 yards of total offense on 31 plays in the first half and more importantly scored zero points (falling behind 6-0 at the half) as it took some time for offensive coordinator Doug Meacham to diagnose the Knights defense. Whether it was play calling, execution or both, first down production was anemic for the offense as they produced only 21 combined yards on 12 first down first half play calls with 7 yards on 5 rushes and 14 yards off of 3 completions (in 7 attempts). Behind a more competent running game the offense was able to establish more of a rhythm in the second half as 19 first down plays resulted in 46 yards with 10 rushes resulting in 34 yards and 3 passes (on 9 completions) resulting in 22 yards. The poor overall first down production from the offense put too much pressure on true freshman quarterback John O'Korn and the offensive line, placing the offense in too many predictable passing situations on 2nd & long.
The Knights 4-man front pressured O'Korn enough to make him look like the true freshman that he is as he completed 24 of his 46 passes for 231 yards with a touchdown to two interceptions. With only four to five defenders in the box as they blitzed little, the Knights were able to drop six to seven while mixing up man and zone coverage enough to confuse O'Korn as both of his interceptions were forced into double coverage. Most of the night UCF also had their two outside linebackers covering the seams (or hash marks) taking away the Coogs favorite play, the quick slant to slot receiver Deontay Greenberry, though the American's leading receiver was still able to catch 8 passes for 94 yards, while also taking away the short crossing patterns the Cougar receivers thrive off of as YAC (yards after the catch) yardage was at a premium against an above average UCF secondary. Unfortunately, Greenberry's unit probably should be the talk of this analysis as they did not come to play Saturday night, dropping numerous catchable passes, including what should have been a first down conversion from the shadow of their own endzone on their first possession when Daniel Spencer (2 receptions, 13 yards) dropped his first of many catchable passes, all the way to the Coogs last play of the game when Aaron Johnson (2 receptions, 10 yards) didn't quite get his hands up in time to haul in what could have been the game winning catch on fourth down from the Knights 7-yard line. In fact, no receiver really stepped up to help out Greenberry as Xavier Maxwell (2 receptions for 21 yards) and Markeith Ambles (1 for 7) also contributed little, though Wayne Beadle has continued to make plays over the past few weeks as he caught his first career TD from O'Korn on a beautifully run corner-route from the 12-yard line pulling the Coogs to within five at 19-14 with just over 4-minutes remaining in the game. Beadle caught 2 passes for 32 yards and added a 10 yard rush on an end around. True freshman Demarcus Ayers also added a reception for 20 yards warranting further targeting as the season continues. Running backs Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson caught 6 passes (3 each) but only for a combined 34 yards, with 20 coming on a swing pass out of the backfield on their final drive, as the Knights quickness on the perimeter defensively rarely allowed the type of big plays the Coogs offense needs to be effective.
The Cougars running game, behind the offensive line of DeAnthony Sims, Rowdy Harper, Bryce Redman, Kevin Forsch and Zach Johnson played above average as they made way for Farrow, Jackson and O'Korn to average 5.3 yards per rush on 26 total carries (for 139 yards). I did not count 3 sacks for 10 yards in losses in those stats as the sacks were on O'Korn holding the ball too long in the pocket. Farrow averaged a more than impressive 7.1 yards per carry but only carried the rock 8 times (for 57 yards) as Meacham rarely ran him on their inside zone play, but I'll get more into that later. Jackson was ineffective with only 17 yards on 5 carries as he failed to breach the Knights perimeter rush defense. Probably the most impressive part about the Coogs offense Saturday night was including O'Korn in the rush game as he carried 10 times for 59 yards (again not taking the sacks into account) with many on QB keepers or draws. With the Knights back-7 playing in coverage, the middle of the field was wide open for the youngster as he took plenty of hard shots with few having a negative effect on him, especially one on a 24-yard run up the gut to give the Coogs their first score, and lead, of the game at 7-6 midway through the third quarter.
The Knights offense had 31 more yards (398 to 367) despite holding onto the ball for 11 more minutes than the Coogs behind 188 rushing yards (on 45 carries) and 210 passing (17 of 24 completions). Cougars defensive coordinator David Gibbs did a nice job of mixing his coverages between man and zone and the ‘bend but don't break' unit showed its true colors yet again in forcing 3 turnovers (the 17th consecutive game in which the unit has forced at least two), including two on the Knights first two possessions of the game behind a forced fumble by mike linebacker Derrick Mathews (8 total tackles plus a sack), which was recovered by strongside linebacker Steven Taylor and an interception by free safety Trevon Stewart with both turnovers coming in the redzone. Gibbs effectively mixed up his blitzes, bringing them from different angles, using both Mathews and will linebacker Efrem Oliphant (7 tackles) up the middle on double-A gap blitzes or using just Mathews on the delayed blitz which has been very effective this season as Mathews uses his football instincts and explosiveness to often shoot the gaps to make plays in opponents backfields. Unfortunately though the pressure wasn't enough as UCF's Blake Bortles had enough time in the pocket to average over 12 yards per completion while only missing on 7 of his 24 passes. With a loaded box paying attention to the Knights vaunted run game, the Cougars secondary was burned multiple times in the first half, particularly corner back Thomas Bates on the outside and Stewart multiple times on slot receivers (as coverage is not his strong suit), though he did intercept Bortles by undercutting a route over the middle which killed a potential UCF scoring drive on their second possession inside the Coogs redzone. The Knights Storm Johnson (135 yards on 28 carries) and Will Stanback (76 yards on 9 carries and 2 TDs) took turns gashing the Coogs interior defense while also finding many cutback lanes for additional yardage as the inexperienced Houston defense often was caught over pursuing the ball, taking them out of their assigned rush lanes. Gibbs, as has been the case most of the season, adjusted for the most part during the second half as he dialed up enough run blitzes to limit the Knights rush game as they ran 21 times for 124 yards. One of those rushes resulted in the game determining score on a Stanback 38 yard vaunt up the middle on a play that should have been brought back for holding, but we'll get into that more later. Take away that run and the Knights ran 20 times for 86 yards, or an acceptable 4.3 yards per rush as the Coogs defensive line of Trevor Harris (6 tackles), Tomme Mark, Joey Mbu and Eric Eiland with Eric Braswell, Cameron Malveaux (fumble recovery), Jeremiah Farley (forced fumble), B.J. Singleton and Tyus Bowser more than held their own against a stout UCF offensive line. Mbu's play of late has been impressive as the junior and leader along the line had a key pass knockdown late in the fourth on a UCF third down that gave the ball back to the Coogs offense for the potential game winning score that unfortunately never materialized.
Punter Richie Leone boomed 5 punts for a robust 45.6 yard average, pinning the Knights inside their own 20-yard line on 2 of them. One of his early punts was so good (65 yards) that he outkicked his coverage allowing a 17 yard return. Damian Payne continued his bad habit of trying to return at least one punt in traffic (netting zero yards) that should probably be fair caught, but since his main job responsibility remains to hold onto the ball (which he's done effectively enough this season), I'll just leave it at that. While special teams coordinator Jamie Christian stands on the edge of his seat (metaphorically speaking) during Payne's returns, he does the same for Ayers kick returns for a totally different reason altogether, probably because Ayers has the ability to change the game positively with one of his kick returns. The true freshman didn't disappoint yet again as he returned one for 42 yards in the second quarter. Unfortunately he only averaged 12.8 yards on his other 4 returns as he thinks he can take one to the house on each return, with many being returned deep from the endzone that should probably be kneeled down upon, giving the offense at the 25-yard line instead of inside their own 15. The biggest play might have come on Singleton's block of a 50-yard field goal which gave the Coogs a chance at winning late in the game. The block was the third of redshirt sophomore's short career along Cullen Boulevard.
In wrapping up, I wanted to touch upon something that I don't recall ever having written on in my three years writing for this site – the officiating. I usually don't comment on officiating calls because I believe they usually even out with both good and bad calls for each team during a typical game. Plus I like to try to sound objective, even though I'm a UH alumnus myself and not sound as if I were "whining or crying" about a loss because in the end it's the players making plays that determine who wins and loses.
Having said all of that, the ‘targeting' call on Zach McMillian was totally bush league in my opinion. The senior cornerback was ejected from the game during the Knights game determining drive after the replay official determined he ‘launched' himself with the crown of his helmet into a defenseless UCF wide receiver, Breshad Perriman, who later gave the thumbs up signal as he was carted off the field in a stretcher for precautionary reasons. With the play happening so fast in real time I don't mind the refs throwing the flag, although it did appear they waited to throw said flags to see if the receiver was hurt or not, as if that should have mattered. So if Perriman were able to walk off the field after the play the flags wouldn't have been thrown? Anyway, what gets me is that the replay official in the booth had the opportunity to look at the play as many times as I did (via my DVR) yet he still didn't overturn the call, which to me looked as if McMillian made a clean hit by dislodging the ball via a hard hit in Perriman's sternum with his SHOULDER. Now the top of McMillian's helmet appeared to have come up under and through Perriman's face mask, but that's still no reason to eject a young man trying his best to do his assigned job on the field. Of course even if the call were to be overturned, the 15-yard penalty would still have stood, which is another totally ridiculous aspect of the rule which is hopefully changed during the off-season. Plus McMillian will now end up being not allowed to play the first half at Louisville because he was ejected in the second half. That unwarranted 15-yarder, along with a BLATANT holding penalty by a UCF interior lineman on UH defensive tackle Jeremiah Farley that was NOT called, which resulted in Will Stanback's 38 yard run up the middle gave UCF 53 of the 98 yards on that game determining drive. I don't believe in conspiracy theories, but I do believe that referee's need to be trained better to let the players determine the outcomes of games. Now, hopefully this will be the last time I ever mention officiating in my game analysis pieces.
In conclusion, though it's ultimately on the players to make plays which determine whether a team wins or loses, I must place some blame on the coaching staff for some questionable decisions that handicapped the team, in my opinion. The first questionable decision occurred before the game's first play as the Coogs deferred possession of the ball upon winning the coin toss. Why would head coach Tony Levine make this decision? The way I was taught football, you start the game with your strength most of the time. If you're Alabama you start the game with your defense. If you're Houston, you start the game by putting the ball into Ayers hands first, then the able hands of O'Korn and the offense second. Everybody knew the Knights game plan coming in would be all about ball control, keeping the ball away from the Coogs offense by limiting their possessions effectively maximizing each possession. If I'm Levine and Meacham I want as many offensive possessions as possible as this offense is too inconsistent to maximize each and every possession. You just know that one, or three or four or five of UH's offensive possessions each game will be ‘throw aways,' due to youth, great defense, drops or a combination of everything just mentioned.
Another questionable factor was Meacham's offensive game plan. Why was Farrow handed the ball only once in the first quarter on an inside zone play, which resulted in 7 yards by the way. To me Meacham basically went into the game playing into the hands of UCF's defense by not trying to at least establish an inside running game early on. Establishing a run game helps the offense two-fold; 1.) It takes the pressure off of a true freshman QB playing in the biggest game of his career and helps to settle him and the offense down, and 2.) It helps keep the defense off the field as UCF's obvious game plan was to wear down a smaller UH defensive front by pounding the ball up the middle, which they did effectively enough. Of course this only works if you're actually able to establish the run, but to me it seems as if they didn't even try until later in the game, even though Farrow finished the game with 57 yards on 8 carries. I suppose though that one could say he was only able to rush the ball because of an effective passing game, which opened up the middle of the field with UCF's two outside linebackers playing in coverage. I also question why Greg Ward Jr. wasn't brought in during the first half with O'Korn and the offense struggling. He would have been the perfect changeup as he's been all season, but to me it seemed as if Meacham basically conceded the running game without even trying, which is Ward's strength. This game plan early on was a huge mistake in my opinion. Of course that's why I'm sitting here writing while Meacham and the offensive staff are actual coaches.
My final gripe comes with the final play call by Meacham. In a play that could be the difference between a BCS Bowl game and a secondary bowl game such as the Belk or Russell Athletic, the pass is drawn up for Aaron Johnson?? Nice kid with all the talent and measurable (6 feet, 207 pounds) in the world, but honestly he's not who I would be throwing to with the game on the line. Furthermore, it appeared as if Greenberry and Spencer, the Coogs two best receivers, were used as decoys on the play. From the Knights' 7-yard line, the Coogs on 4th & goal lined up in their normal 4 receiver set in a 2-by-2 formation (two receivers on each side of the field) with Farrow flanking O'Korn who took the snap from the shotgun. Upon the snap O'Korn looked to his left where it looked as if Spencer (in the slot) tried to run a rub route (or pick) to free Johnson. Spencer then ran a corner route which he didn't fully sell, leading me to believe he was definitely a decoy. On the other side Maxwell (outside receiver) ran a crosser along the back of the end zone while Greenberry ran an out route since he was totally out of the picture. So it appears as if O'Korn tried to ‘look off' the safety and linebacker in the middle of the field with the cursory look to Spencer, but his two main targets were Maxwell (who was covered by a safety) along the back of the endzone and Johnson on the crosser over the middle. O'Korn appeared to let Johnson clear to the middle before throwing to him, but the middle linebacker impaired Johnson's vision, causing him to get his hands up late only to ‘deflect' the ball instead of catching it. If true, THIS was the play that was drawn up during the timeout? To me, you win or lose with your best and to me that would have been a pass to either Spencer on the corner route, who would have been in one-on-one coverage at the back pylon of the endzone, or Greenberry on the other side, maybe on a fade. Of course if Greenberry catches the previous pass, which was just inches off his fingertips off of a well-drawn up stop n go to the back of the end zone, the game would have been over. Again, on players making plays; If O'Korn would have hit Jackson on a beautifully designed wheel route during the Coogs first possession of the third quarter the game might have drastically changed as well. Ultimately the ball was just overthrown, with the next pass being O'Korn's first ill-fated interception.
Despite what I thought were bad coaching decisions, the team had a chance to win at the end and never gave up. After tossing that interception when trailing 19-7 with just under 10 minutes remaining in the game and with all of the momentum on UCF's side, I thought the game was over but it ultimately wasn't because of the heart and poise of this young team, led by O'Korn. After that heartbreaking loss to BYU by one point, the Coogs responded with a resounding blowout victory over Rutgers the following week on the road. Will they respond the same way against nationally ranked Louisville next week? Probably not, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did.