ORLANDO - The Knights will face their toughest challenge of the 2021 season when venturing north to play the Bearcats. These two teams played extremely close games each of the past two seasons, with Cincinnati coming out victorious 36-33 in 2020 and 27-24 in 2019.
Prior to those two games, UCF won three games in a row against Cincinnati, including a 2017 game in which the Knights won convincingly by the score of 51-23 in Nippert Stadium.
This year’s game is quite frankly unusual because of two circumstances with UCF. The Knights came into the season as an experienced team, but UCF went through a coaching change, bringing in Head Coach Gus Malzahn and several new coaches and football administrative personnel.
Further, several of the top players for UCF may not play today due to injury. It’s hard to say what might happen when it’s up in the air about which players will place a UCF helmet on their heads.
With that in mind, here are three categories to watch before a score prediction.
Turnovers and Momentum
With a freshman signal caller in the lineup, UCF will need to win the turnover battle. Anything less than UCF being at least plus-one in the turnover ratio at the end of the game will likely mean that Cincinnati came out on top. One could even argue that UCF needs to be plus-two in turnovers to win.
With turnovers, momentum comes thereafter. The Bearcats will have a raucous crowd and they will be excited about the No. 3 national ranking from the Associated Press Poll.
With all of the talent at Cincinnati Head Coach Luke Fickell’s disposal, such as linebacker Darrian Beavers and cornerback Ahmad Gardner, there will be several moments where the Bearcats make plays. How UCF comes right back and does well, therein keeping the crowd quiet, will be very important for the final outcome of this contest.
To help offset the momentum, look for the Knights to attempt to pound the football with its experienced offensive line and bevvy of running backs. There’s no word on Isaiah Bowser’s return, but with players like Johnny Richardson and Mark Antony-Richards in the backfield, the Knights should be fine at running back.
Confining Desmond Ridder
As previously mentioned this week, if UCF does not contain Ridder it will be in big trouble. He’s a solid to good quarterback in the pocket, and he’s tremendous on the edge of the defense. The Knights must keep him pinned up inside the traditional pocket or it’s going to be a long afternoon for UCF.
As for Cincinnati, Ridder needs to be accurate with the football, move the chains, and hit a couple of big passes like he usually does. Those actions will create plenty of scoring opportunities like it normally does.
UCF Creating Big Passing Plays
For the majority of the first half against last week’s opponent, East Carolina, UCF averaged less than five yards per passing attempt. That’s just awful. In the second half, UCF did a much better job of passing the football. It’s time to take another step forward.
For UCF to contend with Cincinnati, the Knights must throw the football down the field and connect for big passing yards. To be extremely clear, these passes need to be well timed, against specific defensive looks, and at the right moment. Anything less will likely be unsuccessful and probably disastrous against a very talented Cincinnati defense.
There may only be two or three long passes, but if even one goes for a 75-yard touchdown, it can change the game. Again, the UCF offense must be able to hit big passing plays. It’s imperative.
Cincinnati’s secondary will likely be aggressive with attacking towards the line of scrimmage and looking to be physical with UCF’s wide receivers such as wide receiver Ryan O'Keefe. There will be opportunities to hit double moves, play-action passes, and go routes.
The Knights are just not likely to be manipulate down the field with four and five-yard plays, resulting in a scoring drive taking up to 12 or 14 plays overall. That's not a recipe for success against Cincinnati.
It’s up to UCF wide receivers and freshman quarterback Mikey Keene to help make those plays happen. Keene needs to read the defense and then be decisive with his decision by throwing the football on time and with accuracy, but is that realistic for his first road start in a hostile environment?
Keene is a naturally gifted deep-ball passer, and he might need to throw and/or connect on a couple of them for the Knights to keep the Cincinnati defense from just loading the box with seven defenders, even against a spread formation.
Without knowing the status of several UCF players attempting to come back from injury, it’s just hard to pick against Cincinnati on their home field. Look for UCF to be in the game, but just not be able to generate enough offense to overcome a really good Cincinnati defense.
Bearcats 31 UCF 20
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