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Can UCF Use the Space Game as a Launching Point?

With the victory over Memphis, UCF Football has a chance to really do well with the remaining schedule.

ORLANDO - When Gus Malzahn took over as the Head Coach of UCF Football, he entered a team that had just been historically great, and after dealing with a Head Coach in Josh Heupel that did not meet UCF fans’ expectations. Coach Malzahn is poised to take the necessary steps back towards the run the Knights made in 2017.

However, injuries and issues with depth on the roster have led to a disappointing record of four wins and three losses to start the Malzahn era in Orlando.

After the 56-21 loss to now No. 2 ranked Cincinnati, UCF looked to bounce back against Memphis during the annual Space Game. They were given a boost by the full returns of defensive tackle Ricky Barber and running back Isaiah Bowser.

Bowser’s presence automatically gave the offense a lift, as he gave freshman quarterback Mikey Keene a security blanket with his ability to move the chains with powerful between-the-tackles runs. Bowser totaled 111 rushing yards on 26 carries, including a 16-yard run that set up Keene’s well thrown fade pass for an 11-yard touchdown to wide receiver Brandon Johnson. Barber also helped tremendously.

Barber’s return was also critical with his fellow defensive tackle, Davis, out for the season with an ACL tear. Barber paired up with defensive ends Big Kat Bryant, Josh Celiscar, and Tre’mon Morris-Brash, as well as defensive tackles Cam Goode and Anthony Montalvo, and helped UCF’s defense to a historic night. The Knights only allowed seven points to a Memphis team that averaged 35.9 points per game.

The offensive performance still left room for improvement with Keene and fellow quarterback Joey Gatewood combining for only 80 yards on 21 attempts. That being stated, with the defense creating six sacks and three interceptions, as well as a fumble recovery on special teams by Longsnapper Alex Ward, the lack of offensive firepower did not matter last Friday night. The offensive output could be soon changing, too.

Something that could provide a spark to that lackluster offense would be the return of quarterback Dillon Gabriel and wide receiver Jaylon Robinson. Both players went out injured in the loss to Louisville, with Gabriel suffering a broken clavicle, while Robinson dealt with an undisclosed leg injury. There were concerns that both would be out for the season, but Gabriel began throwing already while Robinson was expected back at practice.

Will quarterback Dillon Gabriel return to action this season? Speculation has him playing against SMU.

Will quarterback Dillon Gabriel return to action this season? Speculation has him playing against SMU.

Coach Malzahn updated the media on the recovery of both Gabriel and Robinson on Monday, “You know Flash (Jaylon Robinson) will practice tomorrow, he did last Tuesday too, he just wasn’t quite ready. So we’re hoping that this week, he has a chance. Probably practice Tuesday and Wednesday, then we’ll make a decision on how he’s doing.

“Obviously Dillon (Gabriel) isn’t going to play this week, but each day he’s doing a little bit more. We’re very hopeful that we’ll get him back before the end of the season.”

Looking onto the remaining schedule for UCF, it will play Temple this Saturday, who has a mediocre defense and its a team struggling on offense. Then there’s Tulane at home, who despite looking good against currently No. 4 ranked Oklahoma to start the season, has fallen off a cliff. 

The Green Wave hold a 1-6 record with their only win against a FCS opponent, Morgan State. The last big remaining test for UCF comes on the road at Southern Methodist, which holds the No. 19 position in the latest Associated Press Poll. That could be Gabriel’s first game back from injury.

After playing Temple and Tulane, UCF wraps up the season with what should be two very winnable games, Connecticut and USF.

The Huskies only hold a 1-8 record, while averaging 16.2 points per contest and giving up 36.0 points per contest.

Meanwhile, USF Head Coach Jeff Scott has just three wins during his first two seasons in Tampa, with only one of those wins coming against a FBS opponent, Temple.

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Look for UCF to finish the season with eight or nine wins, depending on how the game against Southern Methodist concludes. The Knights will likely end up finding their way to a mid-major bowl game like the Fenway Bowl in Boston, Mass.

With the way the first half of the season went, a realistic shot at a nine or ten win season is a glowing reflection of the UCF coaching staff, specifically UCF Defensive Coordinator Travis Williams, who has helped to completely overhaul the defense this season, and finally has the results to back it up.

If UCF can finish the season how they should, people will look back at the “UCFInSpace” game against Memphis as the catalyst to UCF’s success.

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