ORLANDO - For the Knights to consider the Bethune-Cookman game a success, the recipe will not be how many points are scored or how many tackles for loss come about. The biggest factor for this game will be mental toughness.
There are a few players to watch towards the bottom of the article. That’s the usual part of a game preview. This game preview, however, is more about something that’s not tangible. It’s also an indicator of what UCF Football can do for the rest of the 2021 season, starting today against Bethune-Cookman.
UCF possesses more size and more overall speed then Bethune-Cookman. That’s why winning the game is expected. How the Knights players respond moment to moment, regardless of the score, will provide a glimpse of how mentally locked in this football team has become.
The objective for today is to improve as a football team. Offense, defense and special teams need to be consistent without self-inflicted mental errors that result in negative plays. Many teams fail to stay locked in against a FCS opponent like Bethune-Cookman.
This is where mental toughness, as well as leadership, comes into play. It’s also why there’s a special section for quarterback Dillon Gabriel below. This is a game where the starting quarterback needs to be a leader and help to keep everyone focused on the task at hand. Let’s start off with the overall focus of the team.
Everyone be Ready to Play
How fast does UCF start against Bethune-Cookman? Start fast and dictate the play calling for a Bethune-Cookman team without as many weapons as UCF, and it’s likely over by halftime. Make mental errors such as committing pre-snap penalties and missing assignments, and then the Knights go into halftime with a strategy for the second half that forces UCF Head Coach Gus Malzahn to stick with the starters far longer than he would desire. For UCF to start fast, the running game will be important.
Rushing Attack Must Set the Tone
Watch the UCF offense’s first drive closely. Do the Knights fire off the football and set the tone with the rushing attack? No question that Isaiah Bowser will create some plays in space; he’s that dude.
While he needs to be focused like every other UCF player, improvement with the running game today will be about the finer points of running the football. Timing in particular will be something to watch as the Knights are close to being a consistently explosive offensive rushing attack. Bowswer had one 33 yard carry. There were other plays against Boise State that were close to being huge runs for Bowser, as well as one for running back Johnny Richardson.
Those opportunities need to be seized today against the Wildcats. Make it happen and the Knights could rush for over 300 yards.
The proper footwork, the proper time to engage a defender to block, literally every single thing that UCF coaches go over in practice, that’s what the Knights need to accomplish against Bethune-Cookman. That’s when Bowser and Richardson will gash the Wildcats.
Defense Needs a Better Start
UCF tackled poorly against Boise State during the first quarter and then did much better for the majority of the next three quarters. Against Bethune-Cookman, be focused and tackle well from the outset. That’s the key. Much like with the offense, being locked in at every position can help set the tone and allow the Knights to go into halftime with a big lead.
From the first defensive drive, how well do the Knights tackle? Bethune-Cookman has speed and shifty offensive skill players, so the UCF defense needs to be mentally focused. If that happens, the UCF front seven should be in the backfield for much of the game. Too many talented players for Bethune-Cookman to handle, assuming they all come to play.
Yes, it’s a theme that’s being repeated over and over. Are the Knights locked in? It’s just that important. Too many articles are written by members of sports media about teams not being mentally prepared against an opponent with far less talent. Inside The Knights does not want to write that story later tonight about the Bethune-Cookman game. Let’s see how the Knight’s defense comes out in the first quarter. They should throttle Bethune-Cookman. Will they?
How Dillon Gabriel Attacks Bethune-Cookman
The word “attacks” can be defined in many ways. Against Bethune-Cookman, it will be more about Gabriel’s leadership for today’s game. He needs to first keep his guys ready for every drive the Knights begin, and during those drives be a true field general.
As noted above, who’s ready to play? This is Gabriel’s team, he needs to help keep his teammates engaged throughout today’s game, and that includes the backup players that will have a good chance at second half playing time.
The UCF players will respond to Gabriel if he barks out a command. Perhaps he will not need to get on anyone today, but it’s possible. Further, Gabriel could be the encouraging voice when a great play is made. It’s a fine line being a leader.
Gabriel is a really bright young man. With Gabriel’s love and passion for football, as well as his IQ, he should thrive in a leadership role even if some of his teammates are not completely focused. That leads to big play opportunities.
Every game has a few formations and/or one-on-one matchups that makes a person wonder what’s going on. For instance, if a linebacker is playing Richardson one-on-one while he’s lined up in the slot, that is a total mismatch. A corner blitz leaves wide receiver Jaylon Robinson one-on-one with a safety. That’s another total mismatch.
Does Gabriel audible to the best play for those situations, if need be? Does he make a really good pass so that Richardson or Robinson can not only catch the pass, but also catch the pass in stride and then score a touchdown?
Those are the little things that great quarterbacks do. Gabriel should torch Bethune-Cookman’s secondary with the offensive arsenal that’s at his disposal. There’s also the basic need for him to check into running plays when the Wildcats place five defenders in the box.
As mentioned above, no mental errors. That includes Gabriel. If UCF is to beat Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis, and other talented teams, today’s game will be a barometer of future success. Gabriel’s leadership will be a prime part of how much success the Knights have this year.
UCF Players to Watch
The entire offensive line. It starts with all five players up front. Keep Gabriel upright and allow him to step into his throws. That comes after allowing Bowser to run wild. There should be at least one 50 yard run for the Knights today, if not two or three. Those big plays start with the big fellas. After that, there should be a balanced group of players making plays for the Knights.
On offense, there’s no question that Robinson will be in a position to make plays. He’s a special player. Look for him to go for 125 yards receiving and two touchdowns, both in the first half. He should not play much, if at all, during the second half.
While there will be more running back by committee today as opposed to last week, Bowser should still run for over 100 yards, thanks in large part to one long run. Look for Richardson and/or additional running backs to also gash the Wildcats.
There will also be another “tight end sighting” today, this time Jake Hescock making a play in the red zone for a score.
As for the UCF defense, Big Kat Bryant will be responsible for helping to set the edge and not allowing the quick and shifty Bethune-Cookman skill players to reach the perimeter of the defense. Bryant should end up with two or more tackles for loss, as well as his first sack as a Knight. Overall, the UCF defensive line should dominate Bethune-Cookman. That will help the UCF secondary.
As mentioned earlier this week in the article previewing the UCF defense, there’s a good chance for safety Divaad Wilson will be involved with chances to earn an interception or two. That’s when Wilson (or another UCF safety) should have at least one overthrown or underthrown pass become an easy interception.
Bethune-Cookman Players to Watch
This team is about quickness. Forget the names for a moment; it’s about quickness. The Knights will be more powerful, but Bethune-Cookman can create plays by making defenders miss on offense.
Look for two running backs to tote the football today. Que’Shaun Byrd and Aaron Thompson are capable of producing big plays, and there’s a likelihood of at least one explosive play resulting in a 20 or 30 yard run. Both of these young men possess the talent to gobble up yards.
At wide receiver, Marcus Riley is a player that will burn a defense if he’s given a step. He’s also a threat on jet sweeps and screens.
Defensively, the Wildcats will be led by defensive back Caleb Sutherland, a player that recorded 13 tackles against UTEP last weekend.
If UCF comes out focused from the outset, this should be a blowout. There are little things the Knights can work on like timing with blocking for the offense and doing a better job with tackling for the defense. That should be expected today. The game against Bethune-Cookman is a chance to get better, and that’s what the Knights will do.
UCF 52 Bethune-Cookman 13