Game 7 Preview: UCF

Your 21st ranked Houston Cougars look to continue their undefeated season as they take to the road to Orlando for a nationally televised matchup against the Golden Knights of UCF. Kick off at Bright House Networks Stadium is scheduled for noon Eastern Time and will be televised on ESPNews.

The Coogs have lost five of six all-time against the Golden Knights, though five of the matchups have been decided by a touchdown or less, including last season’s tragic 17-12 loss in which Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. was stripped of the ball just as he was about to cross the goal line with ONE second remaining in the game. Since that loss, in which the then wide receiver and backup QB was inserted in the game early in the third in hopes of reviving a then sputtering offense, Ward is 11-2 as the starter, including 6-0 this season and 3-0 in the American Athletic Conference. Ward, in many eyes including my own, should be mentioned in Heisman Trophy contender talk as the junior is the only QB in the nation averaging more than 200 passing yards (254) and 100 rushing yards (105.2) per game this season. His 71.8 completion percentage ranks him third nationally while his QB rating of 166.09 ranks him 11th. Ward’s 359.2 total yards ranks him 7th as the “QB whisperer,” first year head coach Tom Herman along with offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, has really refined the Tyler, Texas product’s passing game this season. Herman on the progress Ward has made and the praise he’s received this season during his weekly Monday media press conference (via, “He’s earned it. Through no fault of his own, Greg was a wide receiver his freshman year and then was a wide receiver through half the season last year and was thrust into having to play quarterback during the season. The season isn’t the time to develop your skills at quarterback. So what he was able to do last year was remarkable in and of itself. The fact that he was able to go out and win some games without any practice or development at the position. He took to heart what we were preaching to him, since we got here in January, that the really elite quarterbacks in this great game are ultra-competitive, which he is, but they’re the best preparers in any walk of life. That’s something he has taken to. It’s taken some teaching and coaching from Coach Applewhite on how to do that, on how to prepare like an elite level quarterback on a daily and weekly basis. Again I use the phrase that he’s just ‘scratching the surface right now’ because he can make tremendous strides there. He’s getting better each and every week in terms of that championship level preparation.”

This Golden Knights team, led by head coach George O’Leary (133-100 in 19 seasons, 81-67 in 12 years in Orlando) is not the typical Central Florida squad that Houston fans are used to seeing as they are only one of four WINLESS FBS teams remaining this season (0-7, 0-3 in conference). O’Leary has guided his team to 4 conference championships (2 in CUSA and the last 2 in the American), had 16 players drafted into the league and had been said to be one of the leading candidates to be taken by a P5 conference in the next round of expansion. Those plans may have changed however as this team looks like the Anti-Golden Knights squads that fans have come accustomed to seeing from O’Leary coached teams; a team that’s been dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage this year. Attrition due to the NFL was a known coming into the season. The unknown is what’s really affected all three units, mainly injuries. An FBS leading 52 games have been missed by starters (or presumed starters) due to injury, 33 on offense, that has led to at least 14 former or current walk-on’s playing major snaps. Injuries have also led to nine freshmen and sophomores starting, according to this week’s UCF 2-deep depth chart.

O’Leary coached teams have been known for their toughness along both lines. These Knights though have been pushed around as they rush for an FBS low 53.4 yards-per-game behind a makeshift offensive line that hasn’t seen the same starting five the entire season. Injuries have also hurt at QB, as established starter Justin Holman (6-foot-4 inches tall, 215 pounds, Jr.) broke his index finger on this throwing hand on the first series in their second game of the season at Stanford and missed the next three games before returning two games ago. The burly signal caller still hasn’t regained his form of 2014 in which he started the final 12 games of the season, completing 57-percent of his passes for nearly 230 yards per game while tossing 23 TDs to 14 interceptions in leading the team to a share of the AAC championship. So far through four games, Holman is only averaging 143 yards per game while completing just 51.3-percent. The Snellville, Georgia product is wearing a glove on this throwing hand and is still said to be bothered by the broken index finger as a sideline reporter for their game last week (a 30-16 loss at Temple) mentioned him having to take a pain killer before the game in order to deal with the soreness.

UCF Offensive coordinator Brent Key has had a perfect avalanche as to why the Golden Knights are dead LAST in the nation in total offense (254.4 yards-per-game), next to last in scoring (15.7 points-per-game), 88th in passing (201 yards-per-game), 125th in third-down percentage (29.6-percent) and 121st in red zone touchdowns (7 in 17 opportunities); Holman’s inaccuracy due to his injury, an offensive line that’s constantly being pushed back in his face (which is also responsible for no running game), along with young wide receivers dropping passes while not making plays to help their QB out.

Meanwhile, UH defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has the Coogs vaunted “Third Ward Defense” running in high gear as they enter the game 11th in the nation in run defense (98.5 yards-per-game) and 34th in scoring defense, allowing only 21.3 points-per-game this season. In allowing 277.2 yards through the air (109th), and 375.7 yards overall (56th), Coach Orlando’s aggressive play-calling has led his unit to 20 sacks (14th) and 41 tackles-for-loss, behind linebacker Steven Taylor’s (6’1, 225, Jr.) 8 and 13 respectively, good for fourth nationally in both categories.

This aggressiveness is going to be needed against Holman, who stands tall in the pocket and is a good decision maker in Key’s short quick passing game. The experienced signal caller is also quick on his feet for a big guy and has a good internal clock as far as knowing when pressure is about to get to him, leading him to either throw the ball away or pull it down and run. Holman also has a strong arm and can make every thrown on the field so Coach Orlando’s unit will have to hit him hard and him early to make him think about the pressure later in the game instead of reading his keys in their spread scheme. Coach Keys will use Holman under center and roll him out of the pocket, giving his big QB plenty of pass/run options on plays. Coach Orlando has been masterful at ramping up pressure as the game progresses, but this has only worked once opponents run games have been shut down. Central Florida entered the season with William Stanback primed as their starter. The big ‘between-the-tackles’ back was dismissed from the team after the second game for violating team policies (rushing for a hugely disappointing 11 yards on 12 carries). Dontravious Wilson (5’10, 217, Jr.) was to share the load with Stanback but has only played in the season opener, a 15-14 loss to FIU, due to a torn PCL and has 34 yards on 12 carries. Wilson is listed as the starter on UCF’s depth chart, but if he’s not able to go the load will be shared by Taj McGowan (6’1, 198, Fr.) and C.J. Jones (5’10, 215, RFr.), with both having been in and out of the lineup themselves with injuries. Jones is probably their best all-around back as he’s the team’s leading rusher with 154 yards on 46 carries. The redshirt freshman also has caught 10 passes for an additional 62 yards in 2 starts. McGowan meanwhile has carried a team high 50 times in 3 starts, running for 130 yards for only 2.6 yards-per-carry. The 1.98 yards-per-carry also ranks the running game dead last nationally. H-backs Cedric Thompson (6’0, 235, RSr.) and Joseph Puopolo (5’10, 246, RSr.) are used more as full backs than running backs as Thompson only has 2 yards on 2 carries through 5 games. The Knights are so bad rushing wise that their only two TDs have come from wide receiver Nick Patti (5’11, 206, Jr.) on fly sweep type of handoffs, as Coach Keys constantly has his receivers motioning across the line of scrimmage in order to distract opposing front sevens.

As mentioned, the starting offensive line of Aaron Evans (6’5, 290, RSo.), Luke Palmer (6’3, 302, RFr.), Jason Rae (5’11, 292, Jr.), Tariq Cook (6’2, 294, RSr.) and Chavis Dickey (6’4, 319, So.), from left to right, will be the SEVENTH different starting lineup this season for the Golden Knights. Only Evans has started every game this season, after starting one game last year. In all, the starting line has a combined 55 starts with several players playing different positions; with both guards having started along both sides and even Palmer starting a game at right tackle. Evans has been solid and Rae and Dickey have missed a combined five games. Rae’s lack of size at center has caused several passes to be batted down at the line of scrimmage, something I’m sure Coach Orlando will be keenly aware of during film study. UCF uses their tight ends mainly in help in the run game as both Michael Campbell (6’6, 264, RJr.) and Cal Bloom (6’3, 264, RJr.) are better in-line blockers than route runners as Bloom only has 2 receptions for 12 yards. Having said that, this would be a perfect opportunity for Holman to hit one of the tight ends over the middle off of play-action against a linebacker unit that’s struggled in covering tight ends on zone coverage this season.

In all, the Golden Knights have allowed 15 sacks, 78th nationally, and will be facing a defense in which only 13 other teams have sacked QBs more than the 20 times UH’s defense has brought opposing signal callers down, led by the aforementioned Taylor and his 8 on all-out or delayed blitzes. Of course as with any defense, it all starts up front and the starting defensive line of Tomme Mark (6’2, 305, Sr.), B.J. Singleton (6’4, 305, Jr.) and Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, Jr.) have done a masterful job of getting off and shedding blocks early, allowing Taylor, fellow linebacker Elandon Roberts (6’0, 235, Sr.), and safeties Trevon Stewart (5’10, 195, Sr.) and Adrian McDonald (5’11, 205, Sr.) to shoot the gaps to make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage all season long. Roberts 50 solo tackles from his middle linebacker spot has him tied for FIRST nationally and Stewart and McDonald are always around the ball with their high football IQ’s with 37 and 34 tackles respectively. Stewart, or ‘Word Wide’ as he’s affectionately nick-named himself, also has 6 tackles-for-loss, 3 sacks and 2 fumble recoveries as more of an in-the-box type safety while McDonald lurks more in ‘center field’ with his 2 interceptions and fumble recoveries. Nick Thurman (6’4, 290, So.), Zack Vaughn (6’4, 270, RFr.) and Jerard Carter (6’3, 290, RFr.) have given quality snaps along the line and Tyus Bowser (6’3, 240, Jr.) has provided the edge pass rush that defensive line coach Oscar Giles teaches with his four sacks and tackles-for loss. With Central Florida wanting to control the game by establishing the run, this may be inside linebacker Mathew Adams (6’0, 230, So.) coming out party. After a true freshman season in which he amassed 40 tackles (4 for loss), 2 sacks and 2 fumble recoveries, he’s only produced 5 tackles in 5 games this season thus far as Coach Orlando has gone with more nickel back packages that only see three linebackers on the field in his 3-4 scheme.

UCF’s wide receivers, much like the rest of the offense, really haven’t provided Holman with any ‘game changers’ to take the pressure off. Basically they haven’t provided any separation from opposing defensive backs and have dropped too many catchable passes, or basically traits young and inexperienced players have. After having lost their top four pass catchers from a season ago, their leader of the receiver core, Jordan Akins (6’3, 237, So.) was lost for the season after the third game with an ACL tear. Akins was not only their leader on special teams, leading them in punt and kickoff returns, but also made use of his big body in “out physically-ing” smaller defensive backs while using his speed against bigger safeties. Without him the rest of the receiving unit has yet to pick up the slack. Jordan Franks (6’3, 225, So.) has taken on the ‘big receiver role’ but like everyone else on the team, has been dealing with his own injuries; mainly returning from a broken hand that occurred during spring ball. That, along with him moving from defensive back, has stunted his growth as he has 159 yards on 13 receptions (12.2 yards-per-reception) with a TD. The unit’s leading receiver is Tre’Quan Smith (6’1, 201, RFr.) with 22 receptions for 293 yards and 2 TDs. Chris Johnson (5’10, 182, RSo.) is the speedster and has 187 yards on 14 receptions (13.3 YPR). Patti, who has 2 TDs rushing as previously mentioned, is their best route runner from the slot and has 94 yards on 12 catches with a score. D’erren Wilson (6’3, 175) is a true freshman who probably has the unit’s best top end speed, leads the team with 3 TDs (all against Tulane) while catching 8 passes for 118 yards.

Co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Craig Naivar has to be happy about the play of his safeties this season, and secondary as a whole despite the yardage given up this season. When your defensive play caller calls an aggressive game, your secondary is going to be left on an island much of the time in one-on-one matchups where the “Jack Boyz” have won their matchups more times than not this season. Corner back William Jackson’s (6’2, 195, Sr.) 13 passes defended and 12 broken up rank him fourth and third in the nation respectively. Being the lockdown corner means less throws his way as his one interception points out. Brandon Wilson (5’11, 200, Jr.) has made his fair share of plays being picked on at the other corner spot with 33 tackles (30 solo which is third on the team) and 3 passes defended. The play of Stewart and McDonald at the safety spots has already been mentioned, but nickel-back Lee Hightower (6’2, 200, Sr.) has also contributed with 19 tackles, 2 passes defended, forcing a fumble and intercepting a pass as he’s solid in run support, as a blitzer on a zone blitz or as the last line of defense playing ‘center field.’

With all the problems facing the offense for the Golden Knights; the 26-minutes, 48-seconds of possession time per game (114th), along with turning the ball over 19 times (125th) isn’t helping the defense at all as the unit is constantly being put in bad situation after bad situation field position wise. Despite these factors, UCF defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan’s unit is still solid while allowing 29.7 points-per-game (86th), 154.7 yards per game on the ground (56th) and 236.9 through the air (85th). The 391.6 yards allowed in total offense ranks them 67th overall in the nation. Applewhite’s offense is the definition of balance as they rush and pass for nearly the same amount, 279.2 yards-per-game rushing (tenth nationally) to 275.5 through the air (28th). The 45.7 points-per-game average is fifth overall.

The Knights are solid up front in Bresnahan’s 4-3 scheme, led by tackles Jamiyus Pittman (6’0, 300, So.) and Lance McDowdell (6’4, 302, Sr.) as the two combine for 7.5 tackles-for-loss with Pittman leading the defense with 3.5 sacks. Pittman is also quick to shed blocks as he’s batted down three passes despite being a tad over 6-feet tall. Defensive end Thomas Niles (6’2, 266, RSr.) is strong in run support (17 tackles) yet must keep contain on Ward, as Luke Adams (6’4, 251, RJr.) must do as well, in order to keep Ward from gaining huge yardage in the run game. The Knights only have 9 sacks (101st nationally) with a lot of that having to do with the defense having a combined 23 games missed due to injuries from its starters or projected starters for the year, according to UCF’s game notes.

Speaking of injuries, Coogs O-line coach Derek Warehime has had his work cut out for him the past few weeks as his unit has been hit by season ending injuries to starting left guard Ben Dew (broken foot), Zach Johnson (torn ACL), who started at both tackle spots, and Josh Thomas, who was the team’s sixth best lineman according to Herman and played both guard spots in reserve. Thomas may or may not be available towards the end of the season with ankle ligaments being torn. Marcus Oliver (6’3, 295, So.) started the first five games of the season at left tackle before spraining an ankle a few weeks ago and is still listed as a backup to Alex Cooper (6’4, 305, Sr.) according to UH’s latest depth chart. Cooper has improved immensely from last season where he looked lost at right tackle to begin the year and has shown his versatility this year starting at both tackle spots and right guard in a pinch. Mason Denley (6’4, 305, RFr.) has accounted well for himself at left guard since taking over for Thomas, who left midway through the SMU game two weeks ago. Colton Freeman (6’4, 300, RFr.) has started every game at center so far this year and must continue getting a solid push up front to help the interior run game. First year starter Carter Wall (6’4, 300, Sr.) has started three games at right guard and two at left and has been solid on the interior as well. Damien Parris (6’6, 315, Sr.) had a nice game against Tulane last week at right tackle after Johnson went out despite not being used much last season after a disastrous first game against UTSA. Will Noble (6’4, 290, Fr.) played the second half last week as Freeman sat due to a stomach bug that’s said to have hit the line. Parris was also out as for a few plays as Kameron Eloph (6’3, 290, Fr.) moved over from the defensive line to help out with depth issues. During his weekly presser Herman mentioned Wall practicing some at right tackle with Freeman moving over to right guard and Noble playing center if Parris can’t play Saturday. Tyler McCloskey (6’2, 245, Jr.) has excelled as a lead blocker in his tight end/full back role as he’s used sparingly in the passing game with 9 receptions (for 104 yards) through 6 games. Despite the injuries, the line has allowed only 12 sacks through 6 games (58th).

Whichever combination is used up front against UCF, the unit must continue to improve on the inside zone game as it’s the basis of the Houston culture, “We have made tremendous strides,” Herman said of his offensive line play. “We are getting to the point where we feel like this is who we are. We’re a run-play action team. Some of the changes during the SMU game really caused us to shake some of the lineups and play some younger guys that have accelerated their growth and learning. I have no doubt that even now with the new offensive linemen in there we will continue to rebuild that culture of downhill running and play action pass.”

This change of culture is epitomized by running back Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 220, Sr.), who averages 83.7 rushing yards per game and 5.1 yards-per-carry while not having anywhere near his best game of the season so far. While breaking off huge chunks of yardage on single plays throughout the season, Farrow has yet to consistently hit the holes for the five to six yards per carry, which puts the offense in third-and-short down and distances for an entire game yet this season. This will probably be hard to accomplish with all of the offensive line injuries but must be established early against UCF as not to give their defense the confidence it needs to make Saturday’s contest a close affair like they did last week at Temple, as they led 16-14 early in the fourth before the Owls strong run game wore them down.

The three-headed monster of Farrow, Ryan Jackson (5’10, 205, Sr.) and Javin Webb (5’10, 190, So.) have done their share of wearing down opponents all season long as Jackson averages 5.2 yards-per-carry (215 yards on 41 carries) with Webb right behind him at 5 yards-per-tote (184 on 37) in one less game. Both Jackson and Webb have crossed the goal line twice as they continue to battle for the backup role behind Farrow. Webb was out last week at Tulane with an ankle sprain but is listed as the backup this week. Look for plenty of head on collisions between Farrow and the Knights Domenic Spencer (5’10, 229, Sr.) as the middle linebacker is their leading tackler with 46, including 6 for-loss. Bresnahan loves to use his two outside linebackers in either pass or run blitzes but Chequan Burkett (6’2, 228, RSo.) and Pat Jasinksi (6’1, 209, Fr.) must be careful not to get pinched inside and lose contain. If Ward is allowed to roam outside freely he may have his biggest game of the season. UCF has struggled against running QBs this season and the outside linebackers must push Ward inside towards their huge interior linemen for run support. Burkett has 30 tackles, including 5 for-loss along with 2 sacks and a fumble recovery. Jasinksi has only 19 tackles in 4 starts.

Once the run game is established, Ward can hit his receivers deep off of play-action, particularly wide receiver Chance Allen (6’3, 215, Jr.), who caught a 49-yard deep post on the offenses first play last week at Tulane for a touchdown. Allen and Ward have connected deep more consistently as the season has progressed as the Oregon transfer has 326 yards on 23 receptions with 2 TDs. Steven Dunbar’s (6’3, 210, So.) play has been up and down this season with 18 receptions for 266 yards and 2 scores. Being inconsistent is nothing new for a true sophomore, but Dunbar been engaging as a blocker downfield as all the receivers have. Demarcus Ayers (5’11, 190, Jr.) is the linchpin of the receiver unit with 46 receptions for 562 yards and 3 TDs. His 93.7 receiving yards-per-game rank him 21st nationally and his 146.7 all-purpose yards have him at 16th as Applewhite continues to line him up all over the field so opposing defenses can’t key in on him.

Where the Knights defense has really been hurt by injuries and youth is in the secondary. Last week at Temple they had their FIRST interception of the entire season, which was an 80-yard ‘pick-6’ by corner Shaquill Griffin (6’1, 192, Jr.), whose twin brother is backup safety Shaquem Griffin (6’1, 205, RSo.). Shaquill is their best cover corner with 9 passes defended while Shaquem mainly plays on special teams, where he recovered a fumble. The other corner is Jeremy Boykins (6’2, 194, Jr.) who remarkably enough also has a twin on the defense in backup safety Jerod Boykins (6’3, 213, Jr.). Jeremy has 16 tackles and a sack in 3 starts while Jerod has 30 tackles in 4 starts himself. Drico Johnson (6’1, 207, RJr.) has 44 tackles in 4 starts at free safety while T.J. Mutcherson (5’11, 191, Jr.) has 14 tackles in 6 games with 3 fumble recoveries (2 at Temple on special teams). Kyle Gibson (5’11, 186, RSo.) has 21 tackles in 5 starts at corner while Tre Neal (6’1, 200, RFr.) has 17 tackles in 2 starts at strong safety. D.J. Killings (6’0, 186, Jr.) had a nice game as a  hard hitting corner last week at Temple and has 9 tackles in 2 starts. As you can see, nine players have seen prominent action in UCF’s secondary and with youth playing a huge factor, not one of them has turned into a ball hawk yet as they’ve dropped as many interceptions as the receivers have dropped passes so far this season.

Special teams wise, Caleb Houston (6’1, 210, RJr.) may be the teams’ bright spot as he’s averaging 44.3 yards-per-punt (21st nationally) while placing 22 of his 43 total punts inside the opponents 20-yard line. Kicker Matthew Wright (6’1, 179, RFr.) missed his first attempt of the season but has connected on all 8 since, including 3 from 40 yards out. The Knights struggle covering punt returners allowing an average of 11.1 per return (96th). The Coogs average a thirteenth best 16.8 yards-per-punt return behind a huge game by Ayers last week in which he returned 8 punts for 175 yards (including a zig zagging 73-yard return for a TD) and if not for two penalties he may have had 88 more including a 66-yard TD. This was worked on during the week as Herman mentioned during the weekly presser, “the biggest thing is that we kept people off of him. The first few weeks we were letting guys run down, and it forced him to fair catch damn near every punt. We did a much better job of holding guys on the line of scrimmage, which allows him to not have to fair catch and make one guy miss, which God and genetics played more of a part in than anything that we have taught him. You make the first guy miss, and the guys in front of him are doing a good of blocking, and hopefully that trend will continue.”

The Knights allow 21.1 yards per kickoff return (68th) while the Coogs average 25.6 (17th), behind Wilson’s 30.8 average. Conversely, the Coogs only allow 19.9 yards per kickoff (48th) and 6 per punt return (38th) behind Logan Piper’s (6’0, 200, Sr.) 42.3 yard punt average and Ty Cummings (6’0, 185, Jr.) at kicker. Cummings has yet to attempt a field goal after winning the job two games ago from Kyle Bullard (6’1, 190, Sr.) who missed on four of his last seven attempts. With starters loaded on the return units, Herman’s philosophy is to have Cummings kick to the goal line and have his coverage unit pin opponents inside their own 20 yard-line. UCF averages 23 yards per kickoff return but was hurt when Akins was lost for the season. In demonstrating the Knights mistakes due to youth, two weeks ago versus UConn, Hayden Jones (5’10, 173, RJr.) caught the ball two-yards deep in the endzone, crossed the goal line, then decided to go back and kneel down in the endzone, resulting in a safety. For the season the former walk-on is averaging 19.6 yards on 10 returns.  Tristan Payton (6’0, 185, Fr.), another walk-on, averages 26 on 5 returns. Chris Johnson averages 6.8 yards per punt return on 7 returns as the team averages only 7 which is good for 84th nationally. Overall the edge to special teams should go to the Coogs.

Keys to the Game

X’s and O’s wise, Houston needs to continue doing what it does; running the ball and letting Ward get out on the perimeter to do his thing. Once the offense reaches the red zone nothing less than “7’s” should be accepted as they’ve crossed the goal line on 11 of its past 12 possessions inside the opponents 20-yard line with Ward scoring TDs himself on EIGHT of them via the QB sweep. Defensively the “Third Ward Defense” needs to continue forcing turnovers (fourth in turnover margin at plus-9), shutting down the run game, and hitting the QB early and hard. The Coogs also need to get on the Golden Knights early and pound them, not allowing UCF any confidence needed to stay in the game like last week at Temple. The Knights have been outscored 70-6 in the third quarter this season, so when opponents get them down early they beat the fight out of them. Most importantly however, the team needs to not believe its press clippings as in their national ranking, “Our culture is built that way. We were up by however many it was, I don’t remember, against Texas State and at halftime my quote to them was that if you are expecting a pat on the back then you are in the wrong program. We will handle pats on the back after the season, but during the season it is all about improving, getting better and preparing to win a championship.”

Final Prediction: Herman will not allow this team to rest on its laurels as they take it to the undermanned Knights in a 45-10 victory.



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