LOUISVILLE - The Knights invade the state of Kentucky to take on the Cardinals in what should be a quarterback-driven game. From all the statistics and general information available, fans should watch the following areas the closest.
For a more in-depth overview, check out The Daily Knight podcast, and there’s also a YouTube video of the podcast:
Now a closer look at the categories that will determine the outcome of Friday night’s game, and why they favor one team or the other.
Louisville Rushing Attack
Louisville needs to establish the rushing attack to operate Head Coach Scott Satterfield’s offense the way he prefers. That means the offensive line would need to mesh better than it did during the first two contests, as well as do so against the No. 1 rushing defense in the country.
For 2021, the Cardinals did not yet prove they can run the football consistently, nor with a wide variety of plays. Louisville will likely need both to establish the running game with freshman running back Jalen Mitchell to be able to defeat UCF. Even with Mitchell’s ability to run the football, it’s going to be hard to consistently run for the four or five yards Louisville desires during first down runs. That will place the Cardinals in unenviable down and distance situations because of the Knights front seven being so stout with Kalia Davis and Ricky Barber leading the way at each defensive tackle position.
There’s a reason that the UCF defense allowed 44 rushing yards in two games, allowing it to hold that No. 1 rushing defense distinction. The Knights are really good along the defensive line and at linebacker.
Attention to detail, gap sound, athletic and powerful, those qualities define UCF’s front four. The linebackers flow to the football well and possess the speed to make plays in open space, too.
This is an area that UCF should win handily based on the first two games of the 2021 season; the next category defines how Louisville could make up for lost opportunities within its running game, and will be pivotal for game flow and field position.
Cunningham and Explosive Plays
Even if Louisville’s rushing attack does stall, there’s a chance that multi-talented quarterback Malik Cunningham makes enough plays with his right arm and his legs to bail the Cardinals out of trouble. The redshirt junior is one of the most physically gifted players in the country.
Keeping Cunningham in the pocket is the key, and UCF’s experienced front seven should be able to contain him for much of the evening. Cunningham is too talented to always keep in at bay, however. Further, it only takes one or two players to miss an assignment and Cunningham’s ability to create chunk plays could swing the scoreboard in Louisville’s favor.
If the UCF defense does not contain Cunningham inside the tackle box, he could combine for 400 or more yards rushing and passing. He’s that explosive. As noted above, the Knights are an experienced front seven. That group will look to at least keep Cunningham from consistently creating plays outside the pocket.
The Knights should be able to force at least one turnover from Cunningham as well. Sometimes he’s careless with the football, whether it’s making a poor passing decision or not securing the football when he runs. Cunningham threw 12 interceptions last season. He only threw one interception thus far in 2021.
Look for a couple of big plays from Cunningham, but not an all-out passing assault or combination of passing and running that swings the football game towards Louisville. The Knights will stay the course even when the Cardinals make a big play. It's the mark of a disciplined and mentally tough defense.
To offset Cunninghan’s penchant for big plays, the Knights do have an additional weapon.
Here Comes Isaiah Bowser and the UCF Offensive Line
Keeping the football away from Cunningham comes by way of UCF’s potent running game. Running back Isaiah Bowser already rushed for 231 yards and scored five rushing touchdowns. More importantly, he’s an outstanding all-around running back that must be respected as a runner, pass receiver and pass protector. Look for Bowswer to be a decoy with play-action several times during the game, allowing for a good balance of running and passing.
A couple of swing passes and/or screen passes could be in order, too. Bowser is the player that will keep UCF going even when it seems to go through a tough couple of plays. Look for Bowser to go for over 100 yards rushing from 20 carries against the Louisville defense, with numerous runs gaining between four and seven yards to keep Louisville’s defense honest. For that to happen, five individuals will be leading the way.
UCF's experienced offensive line will be a major reason Bowswer accumulates yards and allows the Knights to be in desired down and distance situations. Watch the men in the trenches tonight. It's a really good group. They are not just run blockers either. They do an excellent job with pass protection and helping with the screen game.
Overall, Bowswer’s running will allow Dillon Gabriel to connect on passes down the field to Ryan O’Keefe and Jaylon Robinson. Big passing plays will come into play before halftime, and that’s where Gabriel truly comes into play as a leader.
Gabriel at the Controls
Once the Knights take the lead, the Knights signal caller will be in control of how the game moves forward.
This game, and especially the second half, will be more about the Knights running the football to keep the chains moving, and some of those runs will be Gabriel audibling after he scans the defense and sees only six defenders in the box. That’s the magic number, six. Gabriel’s intelligence will provide the Knights with good play selection no matter what the original play call would be.
The Knights will challenge the Cardinals with Bowswer, and probably with running back Johnny Richardson as well, when Louisville placed only six defenders in the box. Much of that credit will deserve to be bestowed upon Gabriel for getting the UCF offense into the best play for the defense presented. Here’s a statistic about why UCF needs to run the football against Louisville:
The inexperienced Louisville defense could be caught out of position a number of times by Gabriel and the Knights. That inexperience will lead to the rushing attack causing the Cardinals to take more chances with blitzes, but it will not matter much against Gabriel, passing game included.
Of course Gabriel will still take his shots as a passer. For 2021, he’s completed 48 of 63 passes for a 65.8% completion rate, 630 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s likely to pass for more than 250 yards against Louisville and add a couple of more passing touchdowns as well. There’s an added piece to Gabriel’s arsenal.
His legs. Gabriel extends plays better than he did in 2019 and 2020, and he’s proven to be accurate while passing on the run. When Louisville comes after him with blitzes, watch for Gabriel to run when needed but also keep his eyes up to search for open targets and complete passes while on the move.
UCF possesses more veteran leadership, the superior defensive front seven, and despite the exceptional talents of Cunningham, he will not be able to out-duel Gabriel.
UCF 38 Louisville 27
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