Game 5 Preview; UCF

After a twelve day layoff, your University of Houston Cougars (2-2) host the UCF Knights (1-2) this Thursday night (October 2nd) in the first American Athletic Conference game of the season for both teams. Game time at TDECU Stadium is set for 6pm (CST) and will be televised nationally on ESPN.

The Knights, coached by George O’Leary (73-58 in 11 seasons at UCF and 125-91 overall in 18 seasons) are 4-1 all-time versus the Coogs but four of the five previous games in the series have been decided by a touchdown or less (via Houston’s game notes), including last season’s thrilling 19-14 UCF victory in Orlando in which the Coogs had the ball with a first-and-goal at the UCF 10-yard line with under a minute to go before ultimately falling to score. The Knights are a well-coached, fundamentally sound and very physical at the point of attack on both sides of the ball. As was the case in the BYU game (where the Coogs fought valiantly after starting the game flat to the tune of a 23-0 deficit only to lose 33-25 two Thursdays ago), it’s going to take another physically and emotionally draining effort in order to avoid starting conference play at 0-1.

The Knights offense, under sixth year coordinator Charlie Taaffe, is a multiple spread scheme that uses every inch of the field in order to take advantage of an opposing defenses weakness. If a defense is physically imposing at the line of scrimmage, the Knights hit you with their vertical passing game as Taaffe loves calling for the deep ball. If the offensive line isn’t giving the quarterback enough time to go deep, they use their quick passing game to get the ball to playmakers in space. If the defense is smaller yet quicker, they have no problem pounding you with a physically imposing ground game chewing up clock. O’Leary is more of an old school coach who has his offense use the huddle so everybody is on the same page. This is particularly important this season with new starters at QB, running back and three new starters along the line. Taaffe also, like many schools across the nation, uses pre-snap shifts and motions by his wide receivers and running backs in order to confuse the defense by giving them so much to decipher before the ball is snapped. This philosophy also aides in the run game as the various motions on fly, or speed, sweeps often distract defensive ends and linebackers allowing their offense to gain critical yardage between the tackles.

Overall the Knights offense has started out slowly (by their standards) through three games as they only average 25 points per game (90th nationally). Usually known as a run first offense they’re only averaging 94.3 rushing yards per game (117th) and 204.3 passing (93rd). Overall they’re averaging 298.7 yards of total offense (121st). Of course two of the three teams they’ve faced are top-40 nationally in points allowed as Penn State and Missouri have allowed opponents to average only 14.6 and 20.6 points per game respectively. Two Saturday’s ago the Knights got back on track by defeating Bethune-Cookman 41-7 after losing to Penn St 26-24 and Mizzou 38-10 two weeks later. They led the Nittany Lions late in the game to open their season before giving up a game winning drive late and were within one score before a flurry of turnovers led their getting blown out in the fourth quarter in Columbia.

As with all teams, their offense is led by its quarterback, Justin Holman (6-feet-4 inches, 213 pounds). The sophomore made his first start at Missouri after sharing time with two other QBs against Penn St and almost led them to victory in Ireland after leading them to a late fourth quarter score. He’s completed over 60-percent of his passes (37-for-61) for 558 yards with 4 touchdowns to 2 interceptions. The first year starter not only has a great arm for the vertical game but has a quick release and is accurate throwing on the run as Taaffe will use him in the read-option game out of the pistol. Not only is he efficient in the pocket but he’s an athlete that can, and will, use his legs not only in the passing game, but to make plays as well. Taaffe will often call various types of QB runs, whether they be keepers or giving him a run/pass option via roll-outs and bootlegs.

Taaffe has Holman throwing on the run often because of an offensive line that’s been in flux through the early part of the season as they’ve had three different starting lineups in their three games. The two constants are left tackle Torrian Wilson (6’3, 305, R-Sr.) and center Joey Grant (6’2, 285, R-So.). The two multiple year starters are on the pre-season watch lists for the Outland Trophy (Wilson) and the Rimington (Grant), which go the best interior lineman and the best center respectively. The other three starting spots are still up in the air as Chester Brown (6’5, 317, R-So.) started last week for an injured Colby Watson (6’5, 318, R-So.) at right guard. Though Watson was listed as first string on UCF’s depth chart this week, who actually starts will be determined at game time. Tariq Cook (6’2, 291, R-Jr.) starts at left guard with true freshman Chavis Dickey (6’4, 300) getting the start at right tackle.

The line play up front for both teams will be the determining factor in who wins this game Thursday night as the Coogs defense, led by second year coordinator David Gibbs will look to take advantage of this inexperienced offensive line in order to place the Knights offense ‘behind the chains’ or in second or third and long situations. Gibbs defense has only allowed 18.5 points per game through four games this season (24th), but hasn’t been able to stop the run as much as he’s probably wanted as they’ve allowed 174.5 yards per game rushing (85th) to only 160.5 through the air (13th) for a total of 335 yards per game on average (34th). The defensive line rotation for the Coogs basically hasn’t changed since the middle of last season as Gavin Stansbury (6’4, 255, Sr.) is the only new starter at the strong side defensive end spot after transferring from Texas A&M a month before training camp began. He’s backed up by Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, So.) and Chauntez Jackson (6’4, 265, So.) The standing ‘rush end’ spot has been shared by Trevor Harris (6’4, 230, Sr.) and Tyus Bowser (6’3, 228, So.) with Eric Eiland’s (6’2, 225, Jr.) improved play (9 tackles and an interception) gaining him more game snaps. Stansbury leads all the linemen with 14 total tackles with Harris adding 11, including 2.5 for loss and a sack. Bowser is still playing instinctively and loses contain too many times as he allows the opposing offensive tackle to ‘guide’ him up the field, effectively opening up a hole along the edge where opposing running backs have gained major yardage. The middle of the Coogs D-line is anchored by big Joey Mbu (6’3, 310, Sr.) and B.J. Singleton (6’4, 290, So.) with Jeremiah Farley (6’0, 281, Sr.) and Tomme Mark (6’2, 285, Jr.) backing them up. Mbu leads the line with 9 solo tackles (adding an interception off of a Singleton batted ball against BYU) while Farley leads all linemen with 3 tackles-for-loss. The key to the game will come down to the Coogs D-line stopping the Knights rush game and pressuring Holman without blitzing too frequently, causing potential coverage breakdowns on the backend of their defense.

The Knights will try to establish a physical between the tackles run game against the Coogs as Gibbs unit has been gashed up the middle often this season thus far. Opposing defensive ends have to respect the Knights speed sweeps thus opening up better blocking angles for the young UCF offensive line for their inside run game. If the Knights are allowed to establish their interior run game, William Stanback (6’1, 225, So.) will no doubt take advantage as he did last season when he hit the Coogs for 74 yards on only 9 carries, 2 for touchdown in a reserve role. In two games Stanback has carried the rock 30 times for 137 yards (for a 4.6 yards per carry average) with 2 TDs. Dontravious Wilson (5’10, 212, So.) has shared carries thus far with Stanback (who missed the opener against Penn St with a foot injury) but only has 62 yards on 29 carries (for a pedestrian 2.1 yards per carry average). Both have 4 receptions out of the backfield for 18 yards, with Stanback catching a 2-yard pass on a swing route out of the backfield at Mizzou. Cedric Thompson (6’0, 224, R-Jr.) is also a physical back who’s been lost in the shuffle, mainly due to injury, but scored a TD on his only carry from the 1-yard line against Bethune-Cookman on his only carry of the season. UCF wide receivers have accounted for 39 yards on 10 carries on speed sweeps and reverses as well. Holman also accounts for some nice yardage as he’s carried the rock a team leading 32 times for 123 yards but only has 49 net yards after accounting for 74 yards lost on 9 sacks.

If the UCF line can open enough holes at the line of scrimmage, it will be up to the Coogs linebacking core to keep the Knights running backs from gaining major yardage. Derrick Mathews (6’0, 221, Sr.) and Efrem Oliphant (6’1, 220, Sr.) will be charged with shooting the gaps in order to shut down UCF’s run game and the Mike (middle) and Sam (strongside) linebackers usually make good on their assignments as Mathews leads the defense 28 solo tackles (44 total) with Oliphant leading in total tackles with 47 (20 solo). Steven Taylor (6’1, 220, So.) adds 15 total tackles (fifth on the defense) from his Will (weakside) spot and will be responsible for covering any UCF running back coming out of the backfield in the passing game. Physical redshirt freshman Caleb Tucker (6’2, 230) has split time with Taylor, starting the first game while adding 6 total tackles.

The Knights offense likes to pride itself on being balanced, so while they want to establish a physical run game first and foremost, you can be rest assured they won’t ignore the passing game as they have a flock of physically gifted fleet-of-foot receivers. J.J. Worton (6’2, 212, R-Sr.), Breshad Perriman (6’3, 214, Jr.), Rannell Hall (6‘1, 200, Sr.) and Josh Reese (6‘0, 180, R-Sr.) have all taken turns burning opposing secondary’s on post and intermediate routes. Perriman, Reese and Worton in particular are effective deep (as they average 25.8, 20.2 and 16.7 yards per reception) as they are in YAC yardage, or yards after the catch, coming off of various bubble and jail break screens. Opposing defenses also cannot key in on stopping just one receiver as Worton has 150 yards on 9 receptions; Perriman 206 on 8, Hall 73 on 8 (through 2 games) and 81 on 4 for Reese. Worton, Perriman and Reese each have one TD reception as well. Hall, whose nickname is ‘Speed’ will miss the first half of the game via NCAA rules as he was ejected during the second half of the Bethune-Cookman game for illegal targeting. Justin Tukes (6’5, 250, Sr.) and Kevin Miller (6’4, 255, R-Jr.) are two in-line tight ends who will help establish the edge on the rushing game and give Holman more time in the pocket in the passing game, while Jordan Akins (6’3, 237) is a matchup nightmare for any linebacker or safety trying to cover him one-on-one, as the 23 year old true freshman played baseball in the minors for a few seasons right out of high school.  He’s accounted for 36 yards on 3 receptions thus far this season.

The Cougars secondary is one of the best in recent memory as they allow only 161 yards passing per game, and will have their hands (and feet) full with this UCF wide receiver core. The leaders of the secondary are no doubt Trevon Stewart (5’9, 185, Jr.) and Adrian McDonald (5’10, 190, Jr.) from their free and strong safety spots respectively. While the two might be diminutive in size, their heart and sheer determination to make plays more than makes up for it as McDonald has forced a turnover in 7 straight games going back to the final 3 of last season. This season McDonald has 2 interceptions (returned for 82 total yards) and 2 recovered fumbles with Stewart adding a pick of his own while adding 26 total tackles (to McDonald’s 25). The Coogs are deep at cornerback as well with William Jackson (6’1, 185, Jr.), Lee Hightower (6’2, 195, Jr.) and nickel back Turon Walker (5’10, 190, Sr.) all playing well early in the season. Hightower, the transfer from Boise State, hasn’t been tested much so far as he only has 6 tackles and 2 passes defended through 4 games. With opposing QBs throwing away from Hightower, Jackson has seen more action and shown he’s not the weak link opposing offensive coordinators think he is as his 14 total tackles (including 1 for loss), 3 passes defended and 1 interception attest. The matchup of the Cougars much improved secondary against the experienced and deep Knights wide receiver core will be one to watch, and especially how Gibbs tries to confuse Taaffe and Holman by mixing in his 2-deep zone coverage with man-free one-one-one coverage off of various blitzes.

Flipping the script, when the Coogs offense takes the field they’ll also look to establish the run game as they’ve averaged an anemic 62 yards rushing per game over their past 6 losses, going back to last season. Offensive coordinator Travis Bush must also get his prized pupil, QB John O’Korn back on track as the true sophomore is only averaging 211.7 yards per game while completing only 52.7 percent of his passes (77-of-146) with 6 interceptions to 6 TD passes. Last season the St. Thomas Aquinas product only threw 10 interceptions the entire season. Houston’s 221.5 yards passing per game has them ranked an un-Coog like 76th nationally while their 164.5 yards rushing per game (72nd) is watered down by huge games against the likes of FCS foe Grambling and UNLV. In all, their 386 total yards per game ranks them 85th while their 31.5 points per game has them at 65th, against a tough UCF defense that allows 23.7 points per game (57th), while allowing just 102.3 yards per game on the ground (20th) and 233 through the air (60th), for a total of 335.3 (35th).

In going with his old school theme, O’Leary’s first year full time defensive coordinator, Tyson Summers, runs a physical 4-3 scheme with young men that love to hit hard. They’ll rarely blitz while playing lots of zone in the secondary but every once in a while Summers will bring the heat (see what I did there?). His front four include Luke Adams (6’4, 260, R-So.) and Thomas Niles (6’2, 270, R-Jr.) starting at defensive end, with Deion Green (6’1, 240, R-Jr.) and Miles Pace (6’1, 256, R-Jr.) backing them up. Niles is their best rusher and will often line up at tackle using his leverage to get past interior offensive linemen as he 3 sacks and 14 total tackles, including 4.5 for loss. The two interior tackles are Demetrius Anderson (6’2, 299, R-Jr.) and Jaryl Mamea (6’1, 283, R-Jr.) with Jamiyus Pittman (6’0, 300, Fr.), Rob Sauvao (6’2, 283, R-Sr.) and big Lance McDonald (6’4, 310, Jr.) in reserve. Anderson leads a deep push of the pocket with his 2 tackles-for-loss and 3 QB hurries as the speedy UCF linebacker core chases down opposing QBs pushed out of the pocket. As stated earlier, while Summers rarely has his front 7 blitzing, he will play games up front with various twists and stunts involving his front 4. How the Coogs offensive line defends this will also be key as they’ve shown they’re susceptible to the double-A gap blitz where opposing linebackers blitz right up the middle along either side of the center.

After struggling to protect O’Korn in their opening game defeat against UTSA, the Coogs offensive line has started the same players for the past three games and includes (from left to right tackle; Travis Cross (6’4, 290, Jr.), Ben Dew (6’4, 315, Jr.), Bryce Redman (6’2, 295, Jr.), Rowdy Harper (6’6, 295, Jr.) and Alex Cooper (6’4, 297, Jr.). The offensive line must do a better job at consistently opening holes for Houston running backs if they are to set up favorable second and third down situations so UCF’s front 7 can’t pin their ears back and come after O’Korn. Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 218, Jr.) and Ryan Jackson (5’10, 190, Jr.) must also hit the hole quicker and with more explosion as they did two Saturday’s ago against UNLV when both had over 100 yards on the ground. Farrow has 271 yards on 37 carries, good for a 7.3 yard per carry average while Jackson’s added 196 yards on 29 touches (6.8 ypc) with both crossing the goal line twice. While Bush may not have enough possessions to get him involved, redshirt freshman Javin Webb (5’8, 175) deserves more touches as he adds the acceleration through the hole that could potentially spark the run game. Though it was only against Grambling and UNLV, the scat back has a combined 126 yards on 18 carries (7 ypc) with a score. Central Florida’s linebacking core loves to run downhill and hit hard, led by Mike linebacker Terrance Plummer (6’1, 236, Sr.). The tackling machine is always around the ball as his 30 tackles in 3 games demonstrates. Fellow senior Troy Gray (6’1, 210) may not be the biggest but he’s a gamer and is able to cover slot receivers and backs coming out of the backfield, which will be important against both Farrow and Jackson. He has 15 tackles including 2.5 for loss. The other outside backer spot is occupied by Errol Clarke (6’1, 240, Jr.) and Chequan Burkett (6’2, 218, R-Fr.) as they’ve combined for 17 tackles.

When O’Korn goes to the air, his wide receivers must catch the ball more consistently and Bush must put them in better position to do so, particularly with shorter routes that don’t take as long to develop as their quick passing game has been sorely lacking this season. Slot receivers Deontay Greenberry (6’3, 200, Jr.) and Daniel Spencer (6’0, 195, Sr.) lead the way with Greenberry’s 297 yards on 18 receptions (16.5 ypc) with Spencer adding 223 and 21 with both catching 2 TDs. Both have been effective on crossing patterns and quick slants down the seam. The outside receivers on the other hand haven’t established a connection with O’Korn yet. Starters Demarcus Ayers (5’10, 178, So.) and Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 178, So.) haven’t been able to get much separation from their opposing defensive backs as Ayers has only 51 yards on 5 receptions with Ward adding 103 and 14 with 1 TD. Markeith Ambles (6’2, 201, Sr.) hasn’t lived up to his former five-star billing as he’s added only 71 yards on 6 receptions in reserve. The only other reserve to see any game action when the games have still been close is slot receiver Wayne Beadle (5’11, 183, Sr.) and he’s only added 2 receptions for 11 yards with drops affecting him as well. Apparently Shane Ros (5’10, 198, Sr.) hasn’t come back from his knee surgery last season enough to see any major playing time after a nice 2012 season. True freshman Steven Dunbar (6’2, 195, Jr.) has 31 yards on 2 receptions when games have gotten out of hand. Jackson and Farrow have been somewhat effective out of the backfield on swing routes as both have 7 receptions with 48 yards for Farrow and 42 for Jackson.

Just as with the Coogs, the Knights secondary is led by their two hard hitting safeties; Clayton Geathers (6’2, 208, R-Sr.) and Brandon Alexander (6’2, 195, Sr.) at strong and free safety respectively. Geathers is physically intimidating hard hitting and is usually everywhere the ball is, as his team leading 16 solo tackles shows. Alexander meanwhile adds 17 total tackles as the QB of the defense. The Knights also have two athletic shut down type cornerbacks in Jacoby Glenn (6’0, 186, R-So) and Jordan Ozerities (5’10, 186, R-Sr.). Glenn leads the team with 2 interceptions and 4 passes defended while Ozerities adds 1 and 3 respectively. Look for UCF’s safeties to try and set the tone early with a huge hit on any Cougar receiver crossing the middle of the field.

Special teams wise, the Knights have the advantage in the return games as they average 25.3 yards per kickoff return and 12 per punt return to the Coogs 17.6 and 10.8, while UH’s coverage teams appear more solid allowing only 20.4 yards on kickoff returns and 2.1 on punts (13th nationally). The Knights on the other hand allow 25.6 yards per kickoff return but only 4.5 off of punts. Ayers and Ward Jr. need to give the Coogs better field position via kick and punt returns, much like that of Wilson and Worton for UCF. Akins also averages 28 yards per kickoff on 5 returns. Any “mishaps” with Kyle Bullard on extra points (he’s 11-of-14) could cost the Coogs dearly. He has been effective on field goals however as he’s connected on all 8, including 3-for-3 in the 40 to 49 yard range. Piper Logan appears to have taken over at punter after Dylan Siebert allowed a few snaps to go through his hands, including two on extra point and field goal attempts. While averaging only 35.4 yards per punt, he’s dropped 2 of his 5 total inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. The Knights kicker, Shawn Moffitt is 2-for-3 but has missed his only attempt from 40+ yards out, though he was 36-of-46 coming into the season. Second year starter Caleb Houston averages 36.7 yards on 10 punts, forcing 4 fair catches, booming 2 more than 50 yards and dropping 1 inside the 20-yard line.

Keys to the game

The Coogs MUST get out to a fast start. Getting behind the 8-ball against a physically imposing team like UCF will not be ideal as the Knights would look to grind the clock out with any type of lead in the second half. Central Florida will try to stack the box early forcing O’Korn to beat them through the air from within the pocket. If I’m Bush, I’m getting O’Korn out of the pocket where he seems to be at his best, IE throwing on the run. It also gives his receivers more time to get open down the field. Defensively the Coogs cannot over pursue or get out of their rush lanes, losing gap integrity which would cause a total breakdown of Gibbs’ scheme. This would especially be dangerous against a running QB like Holman. Turnovers will also be a key as the Coogs are a plus-3 after turning the ball over 6 times against UTSA. The secondary, also known as the ‘Jackboys,’ are tied for fourth nationally with 8 interceptions. Placing the Knights in obvious passing situations will allow the defensive backs to jump certain routes leading to interceptions putting the offense in great field position.

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