ORLANDO - Game day is here! The Knights host the Bulls in the annual rivalry for the last time in the foreseeable future, as UCF leaves USF behind by heading off to the Big 12 in 2023.
Here are the areas to watch in this game, beginning with what the Bulls must do to stay in the contest.
Bulls Must Start Fast or be Slaughtered
The Bulls are not playing well, losing four games in a row. Further, USF has been out scored 173 to 98 during those same four games. The “Here we go again” mentality could creep into the minds of USF players if they do not start fast.
Considering how quickly UCF starts some of its games, this is a prime concern for the USF coaching staff. Staying as close to even keel will be pivotal for the Bulls so that they play their best 60 minutes of football possible.
If the Knights do charge out to a 14-0 or 17-0 lead, could USF make a comeback? Plausible, but there’s no history from the 2021 season that should give one a strong belief that could happen.
For USF to stay in this game, it needs to find the end zone early in the game. It could be a trick play like a double pass or flea flicker, but somehow, the Bulls just have to get on the board early in the game. If USF goes into the second quarter and it’s a seven point game, and its found the end zone already, the Bulls confidence and energy will likely go up.
One can bet that UCF Head Coach Gus Malzahn will make every effort possible to score early to create just the opposite effect. He might also throw out a trick play or two. Keep that in mind.
Which Quarterback Protects the Football Best?
UCF comes into the game plus-five in turnovers (20 gained, 15 lost), while USF fails to win the turnover battle quite as often with a minus-four turnover margin (17 gained, 21 lost). This category always impacts games, but it’s especially important with both teams starting true freshman signal callers.
During the past four starts, Mikey Keene did not throw an interception. If that trend continues, the Bulls will be in big trouble. When USF has the football, Timmy McClain sometimes struggles to make the best decisions, much like Keene has done for part of the 2021 season.
He’s been completing passes but to the wrong team. McClain’s five interceptions during the previous four games he led the Bulls is an ominous sign for their hopes today.
Keep in mind, this is a rivalry game. Every snap holds more significance. A fumble recovery after a strip-sack is just as good, if not better, than an interception.
If one or both of these young players go through a bad turnover early, how does that signal caller react?
McClain’s Big Play Impact
Another important point to make is noting the physical skill of McClain. He might turn the football over two or three times today. Who knows? He’s also quite capable of making three defenders miss in space and running for an 80 yard touchdown.
For the Bulls to come out on top, McClain needs at least one, if not two, highlight reel plays. He’s capable as a runner or passer, and one of these big plays could be something he simply creates. McClain is almost impossible to define with words. One must see him live to fully understand his physical attributes.
How Does UCF Go After McClain?
Sometimes it's best to send the house and make a young quarterback fear the rush. That’s possible and the Knights will likely use that strategy, at least at some point during the game. There’s also another more conservative approach.
Will the Knights be able to get to McClain without blitzing and just rushing four? Well, maybe the UCF defensive coaching staff really will make the decision to play coverage and contain McClain in an attempt to actually get him to throw the football.
The idea behind that theory would be interceptions via more defenders actually being in coverage. Then again, maybe it’s just a mix of man coverage, zone coverage and blitzing from play-to-play. Make McClain think far more than he just reacts naturally to the play. Young signal callers usually struggle within those scenarios.
Whatever UCF decides to do, keeping McClain from creating those “Wow!” plays will be the ultimate goal.
This might be the area that UCF holds the biggest advantage, at least on paper. UCF averages 190.1 yards per game on the ground, while USF averages 164.7 yards per game.
With that in mind, UCF is more consistent running the football. Only one game this season saw the Knights below 100 rushing yards. USF actually reaches 100 yards every time it comes out to play, but six of those games were rushing totals below 125 yards. UCF went over 190 yards six times.
Now, will Isaiah Bowser hit the gridiron today? Nobody will likely know, Bowser himself included, until just before game time. Ankle injuries can be tweaked very easily. Even if he’s good to go at 2 p.m. means all but nothing. He needs to go through warmups and make deliberate hard cuts, and that ankle must feel fine when and after he makes those cuts.
Otherwise, it’s the Johnny Richardson and Mark Antony-Richards show. Both are playing well, so the Knights should be fine with or without Bowser.
Do note, USF allows 210.4 yards per game. The Knights will run all over the Bulls.
UCF is the far superior team, and with the game being in the Bounce House there simply does not appear to be a sound reason to believe this game stays within twenty points.
UCF 49 USF 24
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