ORLANDO - UCF Football is faced with a tough opponent as East Carolina will be coming in riding high after three consecutive victories. UCF needs to find the win column again after coming up short against Louisville and Navy, making Saturday night’s game a must for the Knights if they will contend for the American Athletic Conference Championship.
How will UCF handle the talented East Carolina skill players? Will quarterback Mikey Keene be even more comfortable with a start under his belt? Can the UCF special teams perform better and perhaps be a deciding factor for the Knights on Saturday?
There are many questions to be answered, but Keene will be as important a player as there is in the game, so that’s the best category to begin with.
Keene Will Come Out Throwing
After two consecutive losses, there’s no reason to pull back the game plan. UCF needs to score points in anticipation of keeping up with an East Carolina offense that just scored 52 points during its last game against Tulane.
Whether it's throwing the football deep (look for an early pass over the top of the Pirates’ defensive backs) or hitting check downs to keep the chains moving, UCF will pass the football. Considering East Carolina allows 8.4 yards per completion so far this season. The biggest question will be Keene’s passing on third downs, as UCF converted two of nine against Louisville and two of 10 versus Navy.
That must change immediately. The Knights also must convert a few third down and long situations. Not every situation will be easy, but UCF must get it done. His biggest help will be the running backs, and that includes swing passes and screens.
Watch out for Johnny Richardson in that regard, as well as shifty wide receivers like Ryan O’Keefe and Amari Johnson to make yards after the catch for the Knights. It will help Keene have a big day passing the football.
Pirates Will Score, But UCF’s Defense Will Make Plays
There’s no denying that East Carolina can score with its balanced attack (165.6 rushing and 276.4 passing) and explosive playmakers like running back Keaton Mitchell and wide receiver Tyler Snead.
Those players will have big moments. The key for UCF would be mitigating those plays, and that’s what will happen. Look for East Carolina to move the football well between the two 20 yard lines, but not be able to consistently score touchdowns within the red zone.
East Carolina will score touchdowns, make no doubt, but not at the same clip as it did during the Tulane game. Watch out for UCF’s linebackers to be involved with slowing down Mitchell more than most people believe. It will be a great matchup, too. Then there’s also the turnover situation.
It’s time for UCF’s pass rush to kick into high gear, and East Carolina signal caller Holton Ahlers does not do that well under duress. Look for at least one critical mistake from Ahlers that will stem from UCF getting after the quarterback.
Maybe it will be Kalia Davis, perhaps Anthony Montalvo or another UCF defensive lineman, but the Knights will record two sacks against the Pirates in total. Even with sacks, East Carolina will move the football through the air.
Ahlers could throw for 250, perhaps 300 yards. He’s a good player. Ahlers is still not consistent when pressured. With the Bounce House being loud and the pass rush coming after him, Ahlers will be challenged to not make an error and that’s going to be difficult to do.
UCF will be sky high for this game. The Knights have their backs against the wall. That’s a big deal, because it’s a motivation to come out and play with a sense of urgency. That type of energy will be especially important for the defense, as it needs to get back on track.
Look for UCF to play downhill defensively, especially during the early portion of the football game in an attempt to create havoc versus East Carolina. The Knights need to play with a lead so that Ahlers and his weapons cannot dictate play calling. There’s also one question that needs to be answered by UCF’s defense.
How will UCF’s defense react when East Carolina scores? It’s been a tough couple of weeks. How much resilience will the UCF defensive players show? It has to be a next-play mentality.
Look, Mitchell will hit a big play. He’s a future NFL running back. That does not mean that the next play cannot be a tackle for loss against Mitchell. Each play, UCF defensive players need to read their keys and get after it! Playing at home should aid this situation. Same with the UCF offense.
It’s why UCF fans should expect Keene to take a deep shot, as noted above, during the early portion of the game. College football is often about momentum. UCF needs to gain that momentum early in the contest.
This will be a back-and-forth game that’s entertaining. Both teams will score over 30 points midway through the fourth quarter. It’s going to come down to a critical fourth quarter play, and the UCF defense will finally make its stand. The Knights gain a late turnover courtesy of Ahlers to seal the victory.
UCF 41 East Carolina 38
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