Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Spread: UCF -7.0, O/U 67.5 (Bovada)
Down 28-7 with 7:20 left in the third quarter, UCF scored 24 unanswered points to take a 31-28 in the fourth quarter. Louisville would retake the lead with three minutes left on a 12-yard touchdown run by Dominique Brown, but UCF had one last rally that gave them the victory. Blake Bortles threw the game-winning two-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Godfrey to give the Knights a 38-35 victory over the Cardinals, spoiling UofL’s shot at a perfect regular season in 2013.
UCF leads the all-time series 1-0.
2021 UCF Knights at a Glance
Okay, where do I begin to cover the eight-year gap in UCF’s encounters with Louisville?
UCF went from 12-1 in 2013, to 9-4 in 2014, then 0-12 in 2015 along with head coach George O’Leary’s departure. The Knights replaced him with Scott Frost, and returned as the premier Group of Five threat. UCF would go to back-to-back New Year’s Six bowls, including a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn in 2017 that capped off a 13-0 season for the Knights (along with a claimed national championship).
After Scott Frost left to take the head coaching position at Nebraska, in came Josh Heupel. Heupel led the Knights to a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2018, and finished 28-8 in three seasons with UCF before leaving in the off-season to become head coach at Tennessee.
Now, former Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has become head coach at UCF, looking to keep the Knights in the mix for New Year’s Six bowl consideration. UCF is 2-0 with wins over Boise State and Bethune-Cookman to open the 2021 season.
UCF Offense Breakdown
Facing UCF on Friday could showcase some similarities between them and Ole Miss, whom Louisville opened the season against two weeks ago. Malzahn brought his trademark spread offense to UCF, with an increased emphasis on the run game and tempo.
However, one of the biggest things for Malzahn this season is that he has one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Dillon Gabriel is remarkably efficient with his throws, holding a 5.2-to-1 career TD-to-INT ratio. He can make a lot of NFL caliber throws, especially deep downfield, and can improvise with his feet to either keep plays alive or scramble for yardage. Accuracy was a question mark with Gabriel entering 2021 (60% career completion in 2019 and 2020), but he is completing 65.8% of his passes so far this season. Maintaining that accuracy could elevate his stock into day two consideration for the 2022 NFL Draft. Gabriel typically gets the ball out of his hands fast, whether that’s on screens or throws downfield, and the high TD-to-INT ratio is evidence enough of his decision making skills. Louisville will have its hands full on Friday night.
Gabriel doesn’t lack options at receiver, either. Jaylon Robinson nearly had 1,000 yards with six touchdowns last season, and is averaging over 20 yards per catch in two games this season. Ryan O’Keefe (11 rec., 155 yards) and Brandon Johnson (12 rec., 128 yards, two TDs) also had experience and speed to the UCF receiving corps. Both have the ability to make tough catches in traffic, making defending UCF’s offense all the more challenging.
UCF also got a boost in the offseason with Isaiah Bowser transferring from Northwestern to take over as the starter. Bowser had a sensational performance against Boise State with 172 rushing yards, and was arguably the key cog in UCF’s 21-point comeback against the Broncos. He’s a tough runner between the tackles with some promise as a receiving back, adding yet another piece to UCF’s potent passing game.
Players to Watch: QB Dillon Gabriel (60% career completion; 67 career TDs, 13 INTs); RB Isaiah Bowser (231 rushing yards, five TDs); WR Jaylon Robinson (187 receiving yards, 23.4 YPC, one TD)
UCF Defense Breakdown
UCF has not recorded a sack in two games played this season, but I wouldn’t count out the Knights front seven by any means. The Knights are still 69th in tackles for loss (12), and lead the FBS in rushing yards allowed per game (22). I know two games may not be an adequate sample size to gauge this defense’s potential, but (A) they mostly shutdown Boise State after trailing 21-0, and (B) it is a substantial improvement from last year’s 93rd ranked defense in that category.
Even without a sack to their credit, UCF’s front seven does a good job at harassing ball carriers and shedding blocks. They got a huge boost in the offseason with second-team All-SEC defensive lineman Big Kat Bryant transferring in from Auburn, along with WKU’s Ricky Barber. Kalia Davis was a preseason All-American Athletic Conference Third-Team selection by Athlon Sports and has lived up to the hype so far, with eight tackles and three for loss.
The linebackers are overall well coached and aggressive in pursuit of ball carriers. Tatum Bethune and Bryson Armstrong stood out to me on film with how quickly they stuffed plays at the line of scrimmage, along with the defensive line.
The UCF secondary has some decent options in the back end, with Quadric Bullard leading the team in tackles (16). They’ve allowed just 60% of completions through two games and managed to get an interception in each game this season.
Players to Watch: DL Big Kat Bryant (2020 second-team All-SEC at Auburn; 1.5 TFL, three QB pressures); LB Tatum Bethune (eight tackles, INT); DL Kalia Davis (three TFL)
Keys to the Game
Will Louisville move towards passing the ball more?
This might be putting blind faith in the coaching staff to adjust its tendencies offensively, but Louisville winning this game likely means that they have their best day passing the ball. Boise State’s early 21-0 lead was largely due to Hank Bachmeier’s ability to hit quick throws and attack the UCF secondary. But, that lead was largely erased when UCF’s front seven began to shutdown the running game and pressured Bachmeier constantly.
Louisville’s run blocking has not been good so far after two games, and with how great UCF’s run defense has been, it could mean Louisville is forced into a lot of second-and-long, third-and-long scenarios (or intermediate scenarios, as well). They did show some quick passing against EKU, as they scored on a tunnel screen to Justin Marshall, and would have scored on a 95-yard touchdown pass to Ahmari Huggins-Bruce via quick slant, if not for him dropping the ball just before crossing the goal line. Those types of plays are what Louisville can do instead in these second-and-long, third-and-long spots to gain easy yardage and make themselves more dynamic offensively.
Throwing the ball more could also open things up for its running game, especially with letting Malik Cunningham begin to take QB draws or designed runs off shotgun and catch the defense off guard. But more importantly, it would help Louisville with its poor third down efficiency (34.5%, 94th in the FBS).
Can Louisville’s defense force Gabriel into making mistakes?
Louisville’s front seven is going to have a tough assignment with trying to force Dillon Gabriel into any sort of mistake, so it might come down to the secondary making the plays. Gabriel can hit a lot of tough throws in small windows, so the secondary will have to avoid allowing their receivers to run free downfield.
The front seven will have to keep Gabriel from scrambling and take away the running lanes. That will at least keep Gabriel in the pocket and keep him contained, but the secondary will have to cover well enough for the pass rush to get home and force him to either throw it away or into traffic. One important thing to note: in losses last year, Gabriel completed just 56.7% of his passes.