Everything You Need To Know: Louisville At UCF

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET

How to Watch / Listen: ESPN2 (TV), 93.9 The Ville (FM)

Last Time:

It was a back-and-forth contest between Louisville and UCF last season. Both teams traded leads throughout the game, and much like their last encounter in 2013, this one came down to the closing seconds.

UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel had a strong performance, completing 22-of-29 passes for 184 yards and throwing three touchdowns, in addition to hauling in a receiving touchdown. He also had a game-tying rushing touchdown with 1:21 left, giving him five total scores on the night. Louisville’s Malik Cunningham matched Gabriel stride for stride, totaling 364 yards (265 passing, 99 rushing) and three total touchdowns (one passing, two rushing).

Cunningham, however, had an interception off a tipped pass after UCF’s tying drive. Louisville would unexpectedly gain the lead though, as freshman linebacker Jaylin Alderman intercepted a tipped pass from Gabriel and returned it for a 66-yard touchdown with 13 seconds left. UCF’s final drive was thwarted, as Louisville pulled off a 42-35 win in one of the most insane finishes last season.

Louisville leads the all-time series 2-1. The last two games of the series have been decided on game-winning touchdowns in the final 20 seconds.

Entering the Game: UCF

The final drive of that Louisville game ended up as a massive blow for UCF, as Dillon Gabriel’s season ended with a broken clavicle. The Knights did lose two of their next three to Navy and Cincinnati, but rebounded to win six of its final seven games in 2021, including a bowl victory over in-state foe Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl.

UCF enters Friday night with a 1-0 record, opening 2022 with a 56-10 win over FCS South Carolina State. Gus Malzahn enters his second season as head coach of the Knights.

UCF Offense: What to Know

Not only did that injury end Gabriel’s season at UCF, it also ended his time in Orlando. Gabriel ended up transferring to Oklahoma in the offseason, but UCF did get a nice pickup in the portal with John Rhys Plumlee from Ole Miss.

With Plumlee now at quarterback, you can expect Malzahn to run more of the spread offense that he showcased at Auburn. There will be some run-pass options, lots of inside zone, and lots of high tempo. UCF did run some of his old concepts last season, but Plumlee will play more in the mold of former Auburn QB Nick Marshall. Plumlee has fantastic speed at quarterback, able to break out of pressure and scramble for big yardage. He’s coming off his best game as a passer against South Carolina State, completing 64.5% of his passes for 308 yards and four touchdowns. Whether that can hold up against a solid American Athletic Conference remains to be seen, but Knights fans have to feel good about what they have at quarterback. Backup Mikey Keene (63.6% completion, 1730 yards, 17 TDs, six INTs) did fairly well last year in relief of Gabriel, that gives UCF some nice depth there.

Alabama transfer Javon Baker is coming off a solid debut, hauling in five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown in his UCF debut. Florida transfer Kemore Gamble also gives Plumlee a reliable target at tight end, he’s coming off an 82-yard game in his UCF debut. Gamble can lineup at multiple spots to give UCF some good matchups in the passing game, which could give Louisville’s defense some issues.

Both of those guys complement top returning receiver Ryan O’Keefe, a speedster that had twice as many receptions (84) as the next leading receiver last season, to go with seven touchdowns in 2021. Plumlee has plenty of options in the passing game that he can turn to, and they can definitely stretch the field with Baker, Gamble, and O’Keefe all available.

UCF boasts a pretty strong group at running back to help Plumlee as well. Isaiah Bowser and Johnny Richardson are a decent 1-2 combo at running back. Bowser is a physical back that can rip through arm tackles and fight for extra yardage. He’ll likely see a majority of the reps there, but Johnny Richardson (733 yards, three TDs) is a very solid backup. Richardson is a guy that can break off big plays on any carry, as evident by his 7.1 yards per carry last season. Having an offensive line that returns Samuel Jackson (31 career starts) and Matthew Lee (21 starts), in addition to the 6’10” Virginia transfer Ryan Swoboda at right tackle, also helps this offense significantly.

Players to Watch: QB John Rhys Plumlee (64.5% completion, 408 total yards, five total TDs), RB Isaiah Bowser (22 car., 74 yards, two TDs), WR Ryan O’Keefe (84 rec., 812 yards, seven TDs in 2021)

UCF Defense: What to Know

UCF took a big leap on defense from 2020 to 2021, jumping from 123rd to 53rd in total defense. Defensive coordinator Travis Williams has been a long time assistant under Malzahn, and he’s done a fantastic job of getting the Knights defense to become a serviceable unit.

They lost some pieces on the defensive line such as Big Kat Bryant in the offseason, but the Knights get a ton of starters back from last year’s group. Former Doss High School standout Ricky Barber shapes up to be an anchor at defensive tackle, he’s coming off a decent outing against SC State (0.5 TFL, 1 PBU). Tremon Morris-Brash is a good defensive end that could potentially be in all-conference consideration. He’s steadily progressed in his college career as far as being a disruptor, tallying five sacks and ten TFLs last season (also had the interception against Louisville last season). If he can improve on technique and elevate his play this year, UCF’s defense can be really good this year.

Losing Tatum Bethune at linebacker to the transfer portal is a huge blow for UCF, but Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste can be a playmaker for the unit. He was everywhere last week against South Carolina State, getting five tackles and being around the ball carrier on most plays. He’s capable of doing everything that’s asked of him, whether that’s rushing the quarterback or dropping back in coverage. Like Morris-Brash, Jean-Baptiste’s improved play could make the Knights a potential favorite in their conference this season.

The secondary returns everyone from a unit that held opponents to 210 passing yards per game (fourth in the American), 57.6% completion (third), and 5.8 yards per attempt (second). This unit was also disruptive against the pass, logging 11 interceptions and 59 pass breakups (including 13 from Davonte Brown, seven from Justin Hodges, and six from both Quadric Bullard and Corey Thornton). This unit is incredibly deep; Bullard and Divaad Wilson are really reliable in the back end, UCF also has four guys they can rotate at cornerback between Hodges, Brown, Thornton, and Jarvis Ware.

Players to Watch: DE Tremon Morris-Brash (five sacks, 10 TFLs in 2021), Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste (five tackles v. SC State), S Quadric Bullard (83 tackles, 4.0 TFLs, six PBUs in 2021)

Keys to the Game

– Louisville has to show more moxie, especially on defense

Getting stuff wrong in sports is the nature of the beast. I had hopes that the additions that Louisville made on defense would improve the unit as a whole.

After the first game, I don’t think I am alone in saying there were some alarming concerns. Most notably, this team had issues with tackling and plugging gaps in the run game last week. That cannot happen against UCF; Plumlee is a more athletic quarterback with arguably a better arm, and Bowser is capable of ripping through arm tackles with ease. Louisville’s defense has to show more aggression against an athletic UCF offense, or the Knights could pile on points in a hurry (especially with UCF’s high tempo offense).

– The passing game needs to show life early

The few positives that Louisville had on Saturday were on offense. Tiyon Evans definitely looked like the guy that was hyped throughout the offseason, hitting gaps immediately and rarely losing yardage. Tyler Hudson showed some rapport with Malik Cunningham and found himself open several times, finishing with 102 yards on eight catches.

By and large, Louisville’s passing game will need to show more as a whole. They have to find ways to get others like Marshon Ford and Ahmari Huggins-Bruce involved, whether that’s on designed plays (think rollouts or short screens) or Cunningham working through progressions to find the open target.

It’s going to be a tough ask from this group against a UCF secondary that has proven to be disruptive against the pass, but for Louisville to win, they cannot be one-dimensional.

– Can Louisville’s OL win the battle at the line of scrimmage?

How did Louisville win last year’s game against UCF? I’d pinpoint some of the credit to Louisville’s offensive line. They only allowed one sack and four TFLs, and their superb protection allowed Louisville to compile 501 total yards (including 191 rushing). I’d also point to this game as a turning point for the offensive line last season.

It will be a tougher ask for Louisville to do the same on a short turnaround with back-to-back lengthy road trips, but Louisville’s offensive line has to do the same as they did last time against UCF. This is an athletic front seven that UCF has, and they have all the potential to be better than they were last season. Avoiding UCF from getting pressure will allow for Cunningham to settle in as a passer and get the receivers involved, it should also get the run game to be more consistent.

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