ORLANDO - The Knights will have by far their toughest test of the season against a familiar rival, the No. 3 Cincinnati Bearcats.
UCF was able to get back in the win column last Saturday winning 20-16 at home against East Carolina, improving their record to 3-2. However, both their losses this season have come on the road against unranked opponents. They Knights now go on the road yet again against the third highest ranked team in all of college football.
“They’re really a complete team when you look at them, so it’ll be a big challenge for us,” said UCF Head Coach Gus Malzahn in his press conference Monday. “We’re excited to go there and play.”
Cincinnati is 5-0 on the year with a big win in a marquee matchup against then No. 9 ranked Notre Dame, 24-13.
In years past, American Athletic Conference (AAC) teams weren’t taken seriously no matter their record. UCF fans know this all too well. The Knights went undefeated in 2017 but never seemed to be taken seriously for a playoff berth.
The win over Notre Dame takes care of all naysayers who will argue that their schedule lacked strength. Now, the Bearcats will be heavy favorites in all of their remaining games, as they are against UCF this week, and will look to be the first team outside of the Power Five to make the College Football Playoffs.
UCF will certainly have their hands full this Saturday. Cincinnati sports a 23-game home winning streak and rolled Temple last week 52-3 at home. On defense, the Bearcats only gave up an average of 13.5 points a game so far this season, good for No. 4 in the country. On offense, Cincinnati scoreed an average of 40.8 points per game, No. 8 in the country, according to NCAA.com.
Beating a team like Cincinnati is hard enough at full strength, but becomes that much more difficult when you have as many impact players out due to injury as the Knights do.
Earlier in the season, the Knights lost their starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel (broken clavicle), their starting running back Isaiah Bowser (undisclosed), and their biggest offensive weapon at receiver, Jaylon Robinson (undisclosed). Another impact player has been added to that list, as defensive lineman Kalia Davis went down with a knee injury last week against East Carolina and he will not return to the gridiron this season.
UCF center Matt Lee talked about how tough it’s been to see these players go down.
“It sucks, it doesn’t feel good when you see a brother get hurt,” Lee said. “But also at the same time, next man comes up and is ready to play and we rally behind that guy.”
The Knights will have a tough time replacing Davis. In five games this season, Davis has collected 17 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one sack and three quarterback hurries, according to UCF Athletics.
Malzahn talked Monday about how big a loss this is for the Knights.
“We lost him for the year,” Malzahn said. “He’ll have surgery in the near future. Phenomenal player, phenomenal person. I think he’s one of the best players in our conference. Obviously, it’s a big blow for us.”
On the offensive side of the ball for the Knights, freshman Mikey Keene has had to step in at quarterback for Dillon Gabriel.
Lee was asked about how the team has transitioned from the experienced junior in Gabriel, to the inexperienced freshman Keene, who was playing high school football this time last year.
“Mikey stepped in right away and he’s had a lot of poise. He took command of the offense well and knows what he’s doing,” Lee said. “There was never any drop off in the sense of communication.”
In two games since Gabriel’s injury, Keene has thrown for 427 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. With Keene, it hasn’t been the high-powered offense that Knights fans are used to expecting. The Knights have only averaged 25 points on offense in their last two games with Keene, after averaging over 44 points per game in their first three contests with Gabriel under center.
Despite the offensive struggles, Keene was able to lead the Knights down the field against East Carolina to score the game-winning touchdown with less than a minute left in the game.
After the come-from-behind victory against East Carolina, Malzahn had high praises for Keene and said that like with any young quarterback, it requires patience.
“That was his first home start. He’s still learning. There’s going to be some growing pains but he’s a really good quarterback. I think sometimes you just have to stick with people and let them grow,” said Malzahn. “He’s going to be a big-time quarterback before it’s all said and done.
The Bearcats, who have won the last two matchups against the Knights, are led by senior quarterback Desmond Ridder.
Ridder is in his fourth year as the Bearcats’ starter. Compared to Keene’s two games, Ridder has played a total of 41 games for Cincinnati. He’s thrown for over 8,209 yards in his career and added 1,912 yards rushing.
“Their quarterback has been playing for a long time, [I’m] very impressed with the way he manages the game,” Malzahn said.
Ridder is currently in contention for the Heisman trophy award, given to college football’s best player every season. Through five games this year, he’s thrown for just over 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns, with just two interceptions.
Ridder said he’s excited for another opportunity to play the Knights, and said he still hangs on to the 2017 game his freshman year when the Knights went to Cincinnati and were winning 51-23 before the game ended in a rain delay in the third quarter.
“UCF has always been a big rivalry for us,” Ridder said. “There’s still a lot of bad blood and a lot of bad tastes in our mouths.”
The Knights will certainly be looking to repeat that performance in 2017 and spoil the Bearcats’ undefeated season and potential bid into the college football playoff.
With Cincinnati currently set as a 21-point favorite over the Knights, Malzahn was asked if this game had a ‘David vs. Goliath’ type of feel to it.
“They’re one of the best teams in the country. We’re playing them on the road which is a big challenge, but that’s part of it,” Malzahn said. “Our guys are extremely excited to play this bunch. We’re looking forward to it.”
The game will kick off at noon Saturday in Nippert Stadium and can be watched on ABC.