It took one half of football for UCF coach George O’Leary to make a change. The Knights’ offense had been stagnant through 30 minutes of action in the team’s Aug. 30 opener against Penn State. Behind redshirt freshman quarterback Pete DiNovo, UCF faced a 10-3 deficit at intermission, and O’Leary knew the offense had to wake up in the second half.
“I said at halftime that he's not moving the chains,” O’Leary said of DiNovo after Penn State’s 26-24 win in Dublin. “I didn't like the way [DiNovo] was handling things out there. He just seemed to be all over the place.”
On UCF’s second drive of the third quarter, O’Leary inserted sophomore quarterback Justin Holman, and the Knights suddenly found life. Holman led UCF to 21 points and 206 total yards on 20 offensive plays (10.3 per play) after UCF managed just three points and 40 yards in 26 offensive plays (1.5 per play) under DiNovo. The battle for the Knights' starting quarterback job was quickly decided.
Now, Holman and UCF’s offense prepare for a tough test at Missouri on Saturday. Here’s what Holman’s 2014 debut indicates about how he’ll fare.
Holman, who backed up Blake Bortles in 2013, displayed an immediate comfort in the pocket. He helped UCF keep drives alive with his strong arm and quick feet. For much of the day, Holman looked like a veteran.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Holman’s debut was his ability to extend plays. On Holman’s fourth play from scrimmage, a Penn State defender broke through the line. Holman evaded the Nittany Lions’ pass-rusher, rolled left and hurled a 50-yard pass to Breshad Perriman at the Penn State one-yard line. That bomb set up a touchdown run for Holman.
On UCF’s next series Holman evaded another sack -- this time on play-action -- and hit J.J. Worton for a 46-yard gain. That led to a 10-yard touchdown strike to Josh Reese. Holman completed all six of his passes on those two scoring drives for 139 yards.
The sophomore’s running ability played a major role in UCF’s second-half comeback. Holman could’ve thrown the ball away -- or taken a sack -- on a number of occasions, but he improvised. In the fourth quarter Holman utilized a well-timed pump fake on a running toss to Perriman for a first down. The Nittany Lions simply weren’t able to force Holman into drive-killing mistakes.
The Knights’ offense was rolling after his first two drives but began to stall later. That’s when the sophomore showed poise. Trailing by six, UCF faced fourth-and-10 with 1:47 left to play. Without a conversion, the Knights’ hopes for a victory would have been over. But Holman stepped up after three straight incompletions and found Reese for a 37-yard connection to the Penn State six-yard line, which set up UCF’s go-ahead score on a run by Holman.
It’s unclear whether Holman could turn into a more frequent runner, as he rushed only seven times for 40 yards in three games last year. But the quarterback made Penn State pay on the ground when it didn’t apply enough pressure, especially in the red zone. The sophomore’s scrambling ability could be an added weapon if the Knights’ opponents don’t account for the quarterback.
Operating primarily out of shotgun in four-receiver sets, Holman completed 9-of-14 passes for 204 yards and contributed all three of UCF’s touchdowns, one through the air and two on the ground. He displayed good pocket presence, accuracy on most of his throws and quick decision-making against pressure. Moreover, Holman found success despite any semblance of a competent ground game (0.8 yards per carry). He seems to have developed chemistry with Worton and Perriman, who combined for 164 receiving yards against the Nittany Lions.
Most of what Holman did against Penn State was positive, but the quarterback wasn’t perfect.
Officials flagged UCF for a false start four times under Holman’s watch. That’s not unusual when a new quarterback enters a game. Still, two fourth-quarter penalties nearly killed a touchdown opportunity for the Knights. UCF faced a third-and-goal at the Penn State one-yard line when Holman called for the snap before Worton had lined up on the left side, resulting in a five-yard penalty.
On the following play, left tackle Torrian Wilson was flagged for a false start to push the offense back another five yards. Holman saved the drive with a touchdown pass to Reese on third-and-10, but those two flags spoiled a down that would’ve otherwise started from the one-yard line.
Holman was also responsible for UCF’s one turnover. Down three points with 10 minutes to play, the quarterback fumbled a poorly placed handoff to Dontravious Wilson on a read-option at UCF’s 38-yard line. Penn State’s Anthony Zettel recovered to give the Nittany Lions a chance to take a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. Luckily for Holman, the Knights’ defense bailed him out by forcing a Nittany Lions turnover two plays later.
Holman and UCF have had two weeks to prepare for Missouri thanks to a bye in Week 2. O’Leary officially announced Holman as the starter last Friday, eliminating any possible confusion as to who will lead UCF into Columbia. But performing on the road in a tough SEC environment will be a new test.
Holman’s most important job will be to limit mistakes against Missouri. The Tigers have a penchant for causing chaos and have recorded a takeaway in a NCAA-best 46 consecutive games. Last season Missouri ranked fifth in the country with a +1.1 turnover margin. Talented defensive ends Markus Golden (five tackles for loss in 2014) and Shane Ray (three sacks) should test UCF’s offensive line and Holman’s decision-making. The quarterback might have to prove his scrambling ability again against Missouri’s pass rush.
Holman also needs to find a rhythm early with Perriman and Worton. The pass-catching duo was a big reason for the Knights’ second-half scoring drives of 70, 75 and 78 yards against Penn State. Holman found either Perriman or Worton for five of UCF’s eight first downs after halftime. Without those two stepping up in the passing game, things could get ugly for Holman and the Knights.