Herd And Knights Are In National Spotlight

Marshall and UCF get together on Wednesday night for a second-ever meeting that will be televised nationally on ESPN2 at 7:30 p.m. (and of course, on radio on WRVC 930 AM and The Dawg 93.7 FM along the Thundering Herd/ISP Sports Network). Last year, this nationally televised rivalry was a Mid-American Conference East Division showdown between the teams that finished first (MU) and second (UCF). The Knights are 0-4 on the ESPN family.

This year, UCF enters the game on a two-game losing streak, a 3-7 record and an interim head coach. Marshall has, at least in theory, an outside shot at a bowl if they finish 8-4 with wins over UCF and Ohio, at home next Friday at Noon (on Fox Sports Net). UCF Director of Athletics Steve Orsini fired Mike Kruczek last Monday and long-time UCF assistant Alan Gooch will coach the Golden Knights in their last two contests of the year. Gooch, a 1982 graduate of UCF, began coaching there in 1983 as a graduate assistant and was Kruczek's assistant head coach as well as in charge of the running game. UCF's last six new head coaches have gone 5-1 in their initial game at the helm of the Knights. Word has leaked out of Orlando indicating Kruczek's last words to his team were to "beat Marshall" and Gooch said this week, "The boys seemed to be focused on the task at hand...versus Marshall."

UCF posted a 6-2 MAC mark in 2002 (7-5 overall) but defections, injuries and suspensions have cost the Knights some 20-plus players this season. The results have been as you would expect: 3-7 overall and only 2-4 in the MAC, including losses at Kent State (36-16), at Ohio (28-0), at Akron (38-24) and at perennial MAC cellar-dweller Eastern Michigan (19-13). They also have losses to Virginia Tech, Syracuse and West Virginia, all on the road. At the Florida Citrus Bowl, however, UCF has gone 3-0 against Florida Atlantic (33-29), Buffalo (19-10) and Central Michigan (31-13). Those wins come over teams with a combined winning percentage of 39 percent (12-19) and eight of the wins came by I-AA newcomer FAU against a mix of Division I-AA/Division II schools. CMU and UB are 2-13 in MAC play.

One of Kruczek's last moves was to burn the red-shirt of true freshman quarterback Steven Moffett in the loss to EMU. Moffett, who threw for over 5,000 yards and 43 touchdowns at Winter Park (FL) High School, was 7-of-18 in his first start for 46 yards and an interception. He became the fourth quarterback of the year for UCF including suspended for the rest of the season, four-year starter Ryan Schneider (281-194-15 for 1,949 yards and 13 touchdowns), Brandon Sumner (one game; 4-1-0 for 14 yards) and Jon Rivera (played in four games, 1-1 as starter; 39-17-1 for 183 yards).

The running game of UCF is still in the capable hands and feet of junior Alex Haynes (5-11, 220). Haynes has rushed for 738 yards and five touchdowns this season. He was the first running back to top the 1,000 yards mark at UCF (since 1995) when he had 1,038 yards last year. Freshman Dontavius Wilcox (5-11, 205) has chipped in another 163 yards and four scores but only one other back, Rivera, has over 100 yards (101) and junior fullback Dee Brown (5-11, 235) has scored (once) from the backfield.

Junior Tavaris Capers (5-9, 165) is small on size but large on the field. After a season with 65 catches and 548 yards, he has double the catches and yards of any other receiver and one more score (at seven) than the entire receiving corps. In fact, Haynes is the second-leading receiver out of the backfield with 31 catches for 266 yards. Brandon Marshall, a 6-5, 210 pound sophomore, leads the team in yards per catch with 13.8 (24-331 and two touchdowns). The tight end is sophomore Darcy Johnson (6-6, 245) who has only 12 catches but two of those went for touchdowns.

The offensive line has taken a big hit lately. Two seniors, left guard David Ashkinaz (6-4, 305) and right tackle Kyle Watkins (6-8, 340) are returning starters. Outside of that, two red-shirt freshmen and one sophomore round out the unit. Right guard Dan Venstra (6-5, 310) was suspended for the EMU game but the frosh will return against MU. The other freshman, left tackle Larry Peoples (6-6, 280) moved into the starting spot in two-a-days. Sophomore center Adam Butcher (6-3, 300) became the starter two weeks ago when nine-game starter Cedric Gagne-Marcoux was suspended by coach Kruczek, along with the quarterback Schnieder and two other players for forging permission slips needed for a road trip.

Defensively, the Knights have given up almost 30 points per game. A sure sign of trouble on any team is the safeties leading in tackles and junior safeties Atari Bigby (5-11, 215-100 tackles) and Peter Sands (6-2, 215-91 tackles) have double the amount of tackles of any player on defense, except for the leader on defense, junior outside linebacker Antoine Poe, who has 101 tackles. A big, athletic front defensive line averages 6-3, 280 across the line but has only 12 quarterback sacks among the two-deep. The leader is sophomore defensive end Paul Carrington (6-6, 250) who has two sacks and 44 tackles.

Special teams are in the hands of sophomore Matt Prater (5-11, 175), who both punts and kicks. He averages 47.7 yards per punts on 49 attempts, the leader in the MAC. He is equally good in place kicking, with 10-of-13 field goals, a long of 46 yards, and 20-of-21 extra-points. The return game is split into punts and kickoff. Capers, the small wide receiver of the Knights who has 4.2 speed in the 40-yard dash, averages 7.8 yards per return and has one score. The kickoffs are returned by junior wide receiver Luther Huggins (5-11, 180) who averages 25.4 yards per return on kickoffs.

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