Game 9 preview: UCF

Game 9 Preview: UCF
By: Jimmy Schofield

Photo courtesy

Coming off of a 38-16 loss at SMU, your 24th ranked Houston Cougars look to get back on the winning track as they host the Knights of Central Florida this Saturday (Oct. 29). Game time at TDECU Stadium is set for 11AM and will be televised on ESPNews.

The Knights (4-3, 2-1 in American Athletic Conference Eastern division play) are coached by Scott Frost. Though in only his first season as a head coach, if ever a man had training for the job it’s Frost. After playing for Bill Walsh and the Stanford Cardinals for two years, he transferred back home to Nebraska for the 1996 and 97 seasons and led the Cornhuskers to a national championship during his senior season under legendary head coach Tom Osborne.

Then after a six year playing career in the NFL, which included playing safety, he went back to his alma mater to coach as a graduate assistant in 2002 before moving on to Kansas State to learn under another legendary coach in Bill Snyder in 2006. After a brief stop at Northern Iowa, he was hired at Oregon in 2009, coaching wide receivers for three seasons before becoming offensive coordinator in 2012 where he helped lead Marcus Mariota to the 2014 Hesiman Trophy.

He’s nick-named his offense UC-Fast, as in an up-tempo no huddle spread attack that attacks opposing defenses horizontally via the quick passing screen game while also pressuring opposing secondary’s with an effective downfield passing game. After veteran quarterback Justin Holman (6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Sr.) was injured just two games into the season because of hamstring issues, Frost turned to true freshman McKenzie Milton (5-11, 170). The Hawaii native reminds me of another signal caller that Frost coached who’s also from the Aloha State in Mariota, but it’s more than that. The dual threat QB has true leadership ability and is a playmaker in the backfield.

When I watch him play, he reminds me a lot of our own signal caller as he’s Greg “Wardesque” in using his running ability to extend plays in the passing game. Even though he’s just 18 years old, he shows maturity beyond his years in keeping his eyes down field while moving around inside or out of the pocket. If his offensive line, which has allowed 20 sacks this season ranking them 101st nationally, isn’t protecting Milton, Frost will roll him out of the pocket where he throws a very nice ball on the run. He also has the arm strength to make every throw on the field whether it be a deep post, a skinny post down the seam or a back shoulder fade.

For the season Milton is completing just over 60-percent of his 117 passes as he averages 240 yards in his five starts. The team is averaging 212.7 passing yards overall (86th) while rushing for 189.9 (51st). The Knights 402.6 total yards of offense ranks them at 74th while their scoring average of 32.4 points-per-game ranks them 51st in the nation.

Though he’s thrown for 8 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions, like all true freshmen, Milton can be baited into throwing into coverage. Numerous times this season he’s tested opposing secondary’s only to have them drop sure interceptions. I’m willing to bet that this is something Houston defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has noticed on film.

The second year DC will have to make sure his secondary is communicating with one another as they’ve allowed receivers to roam free when in zone coverage. For the year the Cougars defense is allowing 213.6 yards through the air (50th) and 98.5 on the ground (sixth). Their 312.1 yards allowed ranks them 13th while allowing only 21.4 points-per-game (29th) via their 3-4 scheme.

The Knights spread the wealth passing wise and will line their receivers up in various formations (3 X 1 or 2 X 2 stack), but keep an eye on speedy outside man Tre’Quan Smith (6-1, 200, RSo.). The 2015 AAC Rookie-of-the-Year is a true deep threat but is also physical enough to break tackles for YAC (yard after the catch) yardage on short smoke screens as well. For the season he leads the team with 23 grabs for 360 yards (15.6 yards-per-catch) along with 3 TD’s. Houston cornerback Howard Wilson (6-1, 185, RSo.) will probably match up with Smith when Orlando goes man coverage. Wilson has 10 pass breakups and 4 interceptions to go along with 25 solo tackles (29 overall) and has been their shutdown corner for the most part this season.

Tristan Payton (6-0, 186, So.) and Cam Stewart (6-3, 195, So.) have shared the other outside spot and have a combined 13 receptions for 122 yards and a TD. Brandon Wilson (5-11, 200, Sr.) looks to have replaced Jeremy Winchester (6-0, 190, So.) as the other corner for the Coogs and will cover Payton or Stewart outside. Winchester was playing too inconsistent to be depended on in one-on-one coverage outside as though he has 6 pass breakups and 20 solo stops on the season, he’s also given up some huge chunk plays in the deep passing game as well. Though giving up a few of his own, Wilson is a veteran who knows how to use leverage in man coverage as he has 3 pass breakups, 14 solo stops and 2 tackles-for-loss in his 4 starts as he continues recovering from a lower leg injury that kept him out of a few games earlier in the year.

Taylor Oldham (6-2, 205, RSr.) is their slot receiver who can make the tough catches over the middle as he adds 19 catches for 233 yards. Dedrick Snelson (6-0, 190) is a true freshman who was a 2015 Under Armour All-American out of Miami and has 8 grabs for 107 yards and a score as he continues to improve weekly. When in their nickel package, which should be most of the game, Orlando will employ Wilson over the slot with Terrell Williams (6-3, 210, Jr.) as the nickel back, playing more in the box. The junior college transfer has been improving weekly and has 16 solo stops in his 4 starts.
The area of that concerns me the most in terms of Houston’s pass defense, which has been lacking over the past few weeks, is against Central Florida’s tight ends and running backs coming out of the backfield in the passing game. The Knights have two tight ends that are very dangerous in the passing game in Jordan Franks (6-3, 225, Jr.) and Jordan Akins (6-3, 237, RSo.). Both are sent out in routes out of the backfield or via the slot, forcing opposing linebackers or safeties in coverage which is a mismatch as both are uber-athletic (with Akins spending five seasons in the Texas Rangers farm system).

Both average over 18 yards per grab with Akins catching 15 balls for 278 yards with 2 TDs while Franks adds 5 for 91 yards. Running back Adrian Killins (5-8, 155) may be the fastest player on the field on Saturday as he was a state champion in Florida in the 200 Meter. Look for Frost to get him out of the back field on wheel routes to match him up against safeties or linebackers. Frost also will split their running backs out wide to the outside and go in empty sets, in which Milton can pass to one of his five eligible receivers or run himself via their RPO (run/pass option) game.

Orlando’s “Third Ward Defense” has proven it’s not adept at covering tight ends or running backs so far on the season as the communication issues described earlier really show their ugly head here. Houston safeties Khalil Williams (6-0, 200, Jr.) and Garrett Davis (6-1, 200, Jr.) really need to be on the same page with the Wilson’s at corner and Steven Taylor (6-1, 225, Sr.) and Mathew Adams (6-0, 230, Jr.) when the inside linebackers drop back in Orlando’s various zone pass coverage schemes.

Frost, like his counterpart in Houston head coach Tom Herman, wants to be able to run the ball as well. He’ll use Milton in the run game via the zone read game as well as called draws and sweeps as the true freshman would have averaged over 50 yards per game (on his 45 total carries) if not for losing 150 yards in sacks and tackles-for-loss. The Knights can go four deep at running back in their outside and inside zone running schemes and are led by Dontravious Wilson (5-10, 210, Sr.) who’s their between-the-tackles back as he has 371 yards on 87 carries (4.3 yards-per-carry) while crossing the goal line 7 times. Jawon Hamilton (5-9, 190) is a true freshman who has 281 yards on 73 carries (3.8 per) with 1 TD. Killins is as dangerous in the run game as he is a receiving threat as he averages nearly 10 yards (9.9) on his 26 carries (257 yards) while adding 2 TDs. Taj McGowan (6-1, 202, So.) has fallen to fourth on the depth chart as he has 113 yards on 21 carries but was their second leading rusher last year as a true freshman.

Adams leads the Cougars defense with 49 total tackles (32 solo) along with 6 for loss while Taylor adds 38 total but only 18 solo with 10 for loss and 5.5 sacks as Orlando lines him up all over the field. Outside linebackers Emeke Egbule (6-3, 230, So.) and D’Juan Hines (6-1, 225, Jr.) must keep contain on the backside while pressuring Milton in the passing game, something the team hasn’t been able to do over their bad stretch of defensive play the past three games. Hines has 20 solo tackles on the season while Egbule has only 9 as they continue to sub for the regular starter at the rush backer spot in Tyus Bowser, who’s been out with a broken orbital bone, as his 3.5 sacks continue to be second on the team despite having sat out for the past four games. Egbule and Hines combine for only half a tackle-for-loss and zero sacks.

Central Florida’s offensive line had the same starting lineup for every game until last week when they lost their starting left guard. Aaron Evans (6-5, 290, RJr.) has started every game the past two seasons at left tackle while Chester Brown (6-5, 330, RSr.) is a multiple year starter at several positions and takes over at the aforementioned left guard spot. Jason Rae (5-11, 288, Sr.) is also a multiple year starter at center. The right side isn’t as experienced, but may be just as talented with 4-star signee Jordan Johnson (6-2, 275, Fr.) at right guard with second year starter Wyatt Miller (6-4, 290, RSo.) next to him at right tackle. As if the Knights didn’t have enough tight ends, Cal Bloom (6-4, 250, RSr.) is used more as an inline blocker, though he does have a catch for 19 yards so he can leak out and get lost in coverage.

The Knights offensive line has allowed 20 sacks, though Milton has run himself into more than a few of them. There have been miscommunication issues as the line has allowed a whopping 58 tackles-for-loss, ranking them 122nd nationally. The Cougars 54 tackles-for-loss and 19 sacks defensively rank them 20th and 35th respectively and it all starts up front. Nose guard Ed Oliver (6-2, 290) had a leg contusion last week at SMU and should be available for Saturday’s game. The true freshman leads the team in TFL with 10.5 and is tied for first with Adams with 32 solo tackles, something unheard of for a defensive lineman, much less a nose guard who plays straight up on the center. If he can’t get to the opposing QB, he’ll raise his huge paws up and bat the pass down as he adds 5 passes defended, ranking him third on the defense.

If Oliver isn’t as effective as usual then it’s next man up as Nick Thurman (6-4, 290, Jr.) has played plenty in reserve at the nose, adding 9 total tackles and one for loss. B.J. Singleton (6-4, 305, Sr.) had started at the nose the past few seasons and plays as a reserve at defensive end while also rotating to the nose at times as well as he has 6 tackles. Starting ends Jerard Carter (6-3, 290, So.) and Cameron Malveaux (6-6, 270, Sr.) add 15 solo tackles, 10 by Carter, and 5.5 TFL, 4 by Malveaux who’s good at using his 6-6 frame to leverage his way between opposing offensive linemen. Zach Vaughn (6-4, 270, So.) is the sixth defensive lineman, adding 4 solo stops and 1.5 TFL.

Speaking of tackles-for-loss, the Knights have 57 which rank them 13th nationally while their 24 sacks places them at 10th Their defensive coordinator is Erik Chinander, who followed Frost from Oregon where he coached for seven seasons. The former walk-on offensive lineman from Iowa knows the frustration of having to defend against a 3-4 scheme in which you don’t know where the blitz is coming from, so that’s what he’s coaching at UCF in his first season as a DC.

The Knights allow 23.7 points-per-game (40th) and 361.4 yards of total offense (36th); 133 rushing (36th) and 228.4 passing (68th). They’ll be facing a spread attack from Houston that averages 39.4 points-per-game (20th) and 478.9 yards of total offense (32nd); 182.8 rushing (55th) and 297.1 through the air (23rd), under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Major Applewhite.

It all starts up front for the Knights as Chinander will rotate up to seven men in their three man front. Jamiyus Pittman (6-0, 295, Jr.) is their nose and has 3.5 TFL and 2 sacks. A.J. Wooten (6-4, 274, RSo.) plays behind him and adds 11 tackles. They rotate Tysten Hill (6-1, 295, Fr.), Joey Connors (6-1, 285, RSo.) and Tony Guerad (6-3, 275, RJr.) at the two defensive end spots with Guerad leading the way with 10 solo tackles, 5.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks with Hill adding 5 TFL. They’ll play games up front via twists and stunts and play 3, 4 or even 5 man (bear) fronts in order to shut down the run game.

Speaking of the running game, that’s what Applewhite must get back on track, especially his inside zone run game, in order to take the pressure off of his QB, Greg Ward Jr. (5-11, 190, Sr.). This is easier said than done however as the offensive line for the Coogs is the most mashed up unit as starting center Will Noble (6-4, 290, So.) had to leave last week’s game due to a stinger and is out for Saturday’s game per Herman via his Monday media press conference. His backup is Alex Fontanta (6-3, 310, Jr.) who started at right guard for Marcus Oliver (6-3, 295, Jr.) who had been out with a high ankle sprain but will be back for Saturday as he’ll be splitting time with Mac Long (6-4, 300, Sr.). At left guard Kameron Eloph (6-3, 294, So.) and Mason Denley (6-4, 305, So.) will split time. The foursome must run block better as the offense has really struggled to establish the inside run this season. The tackle situation isn’t any better with right tackle Na’Ty Rodgers (6-5, 292, Jr.) also out with a bum ankle. If Rodgers can’t go Saturday then true freshman Braylon Jones (6-3, 278) will make a second consecutive start as he’s played well in his little playing time. Left tackle Josh Jones (6-5, 280, RFr.) has been the only linemen who hasn’t been hit by the injury bug this season (knocking on wood).

Duke Catalon (6-0, 210, So.) returned last week and is the leading rusher at running back with 279 yards on 65 carries. Returning from ankle and concussion issues, it’s going to take awhile for the former Texas transfer to get fully back into the flow as in being patient and allowing your line to set up blocks for you takes time. Of course that’s when your line actually does block for you on the interior. Backing him up are Dillon Birden (5-9, 172. Jr.) and Mulbah Car (5-11, 194, Fr.), with 190 and 206 yards on 45 and 49 carries respectively. Birden leads the unit with 6 rushing TDs. Most of the run game has been put on Ward’s shoulders as he leads the team with 417 yards on 122 carries and is tied with Birden with 6 TD’s.

As with all 3-4 schemes, the Knights linebacking core is the heart and soul of the defense, led by inside linebacker Mark Rucker (5-9, 217, RSr.) and outside linebacker Shaquem Griffin (6-1, 213, RJr.). Though he may be small in height, he’s tall in stature as he leads the defense in tackles (52 total and 32 solo) while adding 6.5 TFL and 2 sacks. Griffin meanwhile leads in sacks with 6 as he’s all over the field. The former safety also has 4 pass breakups and 2 forced fumbles as he has a true nose for the ball. Chequan Burkett (6-2, 230, RJr.) and Errol Clarke (6-3, 230, RSr.) round out the starting linebacking core from their inside and outside spots respectively. Clarke is a defensive leader and the ferocious hitter has 5.5 TFL with 3 sacks and passes defended while Burkett has 14 solo tackles on the inside. Demeitre Brim (6-3, 228, RSr.) has 17 solo tackles (37 total), 2.5 TFL and 3 pass breakups of his own as part of the rotation at inside linebacker.

Ward averages 311 yards through the air while completing nearly 70-percent of his 257 passes while throwing 13 TD’s to only 5 interceptions. Last week however he seemed to have communication issues with his receivers for the first time in awhile, sometimes throwing deep when his wide-outs would run come back routes or vice versa. Slot receiver Linell Bonner (6-0, 200, Jr.) leads the unit with 59 receptions for 677 yards and 2 scores. He’s been banged up with shoulder and groin issues and it showed last week as he only caught four passes for 24 yards, both season lows.

Along with Griffin and Clarke bumping him off his routes on crossers, UCF safeties Drico Johnson (6-1, 215, RSr.) and T.J. Mutcherson (5-11, 190, Sr.) will also be responsible for Bonner and fellow slot men D’Eriq King (5-10, 170, Fr.) and Marquez Stevenson (6-0, 175, Fr.) who played for the first time last week, returning from a broken collarbone. King has 173 yards on 25 catches with a score while Stevenson has one catch for 34 yards which is only technically a catch as it came on a reverse last week at SMU. Mutcherson is third on the Knights defense with 25 solo tackles, 40 total, 3.5 for loss and has 2 interceptions. Johnson meanwhile is the other defensive captain, adding 23 solo stops, 29 total, and 4 passes broken up in coverage while playing in his 46th career game come Saturday.

Houston outside receivers Steven Dunbar (6-3, 210, Jr.) and Chance Allen (6-3, 215, Sr.) must do a better job of getting open and holding onto the ball against a physical group of UCF cornerbacks, led by Shaquill Griffin (6-1, 200, Sr.) and D.J. Killings (6-0, 185, Sr.). Griffin has 8 pass breakups and his 2 interceptions tie with Mutcherson to lead the team while Killings has 3 pass breakups himself. Allen has 38 receptions and 526 yards to Dunbar’s 36 and 500 respectively, with Dunbar having 4 TD receptions to Allen’s 2.

Special Teams

Houston special teams coordinator Jason Washington must clean up his special teams unit play if the Coogs hope to win come Saturday. While his punt coverage unit doesn’t even allow an full yard per return (.3 to be exact to rank them third nationally), their kick coverage unit continues to play undisciplined ball, running out of their assigned lanes many times as they allow 23.5 per return (100th).
While the Knights average just 19.5 per kick return (93rd), Killins has returned one 100 yards for a TD and averages 23.8 on 8 returns. Being a true freshman he has made a few bad decisions in returning a few he probably shouldn’t have, stepping out of bounds last week at UConn to start a drive inside their own 10-yard line. Reserve defensive back Chris Johnson (5-10, 176, RJr.) averages 9.6 yards on his 11 punt returns with a long of 21 so it’s going to be imperative that Houston’s Dane Roy (6-7, 230, Fr.) punt them high and deep as the Aussie has pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line on 9 of his 31 punts while forcing 16 fair catches. Roy has boomed four of his punts for more than 50 yards which will be important come game time so he gives his coverage unit time to get down the field to make the tackle. Overall Roy is averaging 39.5 yards-per-punt as he has a tendency to shank them at times.

Conversely, the Knights allow opponents to return kicks at a 20.1 clip (54th) and a whopping 19.8 on punt returns, ranking them 125th. In what could be called the ‘Movable object versus the Resistible Force,’ Houston’s punt return team averages only 4.3 yards per return, ranking them 100th nationally as King has 29 yards on 6 punt returns. The true freshman averages 25.4 yards on 10 kick returns as he’s taken over for Wilson (who averaged over 24 himself before injuring his ankle) as the Coogs average 23 yards per kick return to rank them 35th. UCF’s punter, Caleb Houston (6-1, 225, RSr.), averages 40.3 yards-per-punt but has pinned opponents inside their 20-yard line on 12 of his 30 total while forcing 11 fair catches and booming 4 more than 50 yards.

If the game comes down to a field goal, the Knights may have the edge as Mathew Wright (6-0, 185, RSo.) has connected on 9-of-13 with 4 coming from more than 40 yards out. Houston’s Ty Cummings (6-0, 185, Sr.) meanwhile continues to be hot and cold as a kicker as he missed two last week, including an easy 19 yarder while also connecting on 9-of-13 total, but is only 1-for-2 on kicks of more than 40 yards. Cummings has 24 touchbacks on 54 kickoffs but has kicked 3 out of bounds, while Donald De La Haye (5-9, 170, So.) has 14 on 43 kickoffs with 2 out of bounds for the Knights.

Keys to the game

The Cougars need to get off to a good start on Saturday or they could be in for a close game. If they do get the lead early, they need to show the killer instinct they’ve possessed for most of the year plus that Herman has been leading the ship. This is more of a mental aspect of the game than X’s & O’s as it’s all in the coaching staff’s ability to get the team to play focused.

As always with my keys to the game, it’s all about red zone efficiency, turnovers and penalties. The Coogs are 34th in the nation in crossing the goal line once they get into the red zone (30 TD’s in 44 trips), but the Knights red zone defense ranks them 12th as they’ve only allowed 15 TD’s in 33 trips. Conversely, the Knights offense ranks 37th, converting on 14-of-21 said trips while the Cougars defense is ranked 41st, 11-for-20. Who scores 7’s instead of 3’s always determines who wins a close game.
Scoring while inside the 20 is one thing, but how effective are these teams at moving between the 20’s? What the Knights hang their hat on defensively is getting off the field on third down as their 28.7-percent conversion rate ranks them EIGHTH nationally. What the Cougars do better than most offensively is moving the chains as their 48.9-percent conversion rate offensively ranks them 13th. Not having Noble in the game at center could be a major factor in offensive production as Fontana has had trouble snapping the ball exactly where Ward likes it. A high or low snap can throw off the rhythm and timing of a play before it even begins.

While the Knights are recruiting well, as 78 of their players come from talent rich Florida with another 16 from neighboring Georgia, the Knights are still young and don’t have the overall talent to win when they commit as many penalties as they do, 56 for 458 yards to rank them 103rd and 93rd nationally. The Cougars had been playing mistake free football, penalty wise, until the past few weeks as they have committed 33 for 344 yards to rank them 15th and 29th overall.

And lastly, the “Jack Boyz” haven’t been jacking much lately as the Cougars have forced only 10 turnovers on the year (5 picks and 5 fumble recoveries) while giving up the rock 13 times on offense (6 interceptions and 7 fumbles). Their minus-2 turnover ratio ranks them 94th nationally, this after being in the top-25 for the past three seasons. UCF isn’t much better as they rank 55th as they’re given up the ball as many times as they’ve taken it away; 11.

If the Cougars don’t come to play Saturday, they can easily lose as sometime’s it’s not about the mistakes that you do make, but the ones you don’t as in the mental errors and lack of focus that has plagued them since the Navy loss.

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Great, great analysis. While we’ll be highly motivated to show that the SMU game isn’t who we are, I saw that after our Tulsa beating in the Briles era, we beat a 2-8 Marshall team at home by seven. After UTSA, we throttled Grambling (47-0). They finished the season 7-5. After the TX State debacle, we lost to an eventual 9-3 La Tech team by seven. The next week we lost 37-6 at #22 UCLA. I think we win this one in a squeaker and get a much needed week off.

These were the only 40+ point spread swings that I recall over the last 10 years.

We are making a comeback yall! Honeymoon is over so now its time to show our true commitment! GO COOGS!

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