It’s rare that a college football program has a statement game for it’s first action of a season. However, 2020 is a year filled with firsts and unique situations like no other. With that in mind, when the UCF Knights went into Atlanta to battle Georgia Tech in their debut on the gridiron, it was to seize the opportunity on a national stage to make such a statement. It turned out the Knights 49-21 victory was less a statement and more of an exclamation.
Leading up to this game was a long list of concerns that fans were harboring. After 60 minutes of Saturday football, it would appear that they have been quashed (at least for now). So begins the assessment of things that UCF fans can now worry less about.
COVID And Start Dates And Jitters – OH MY!
It all starts with the ambiguity that came with UCF’s preseason. Three offensive starters in Adrian Killins, Gabe Davis and Jordan Johnson graduated. 10 players also opted out for COVID-19 and two of them were key contributors on defense, Tay Gowan and Kalia Davis. On top of that, Georgia Tech had a game under their belt whilst the Knights were seeing action for the first time.
Then for the final layer, the Yellow Jackets were riding high and confident after upsetting Florida State the previous week.
Would the Knights knock off enough rust to execute the UCFast offense at a high tempo? Is their roster deep enough to overcome the uniquely challenging offseason?
In fairness, UCF did have a rough start with Tech firing out with a big kick return to score quickly on the first drive. They also went scoreless in the third quarter but that’s basically where the woes end.
Quarterback Dillion Gabriel threw for 417 yards in a career-best performance. Wide receiver Tre Nixon caught two touchdowns with 94 yards before leaving the game early due to injury.
With Nixon out, the squad was stopped in the third quarter but still scored 21 points during the fourth. They got help from Marlon Williams turning a career-high 10 catches for 154 yards while sophomore Jaylon “Flash” Robinson had six catches for 104 of his own in his UCF debut.
But what about the run attack? Greg McCrae turned in 50 yards on nine carries with a score. After he left the game after an awkward leg tackle, it fell to Otis Anderson and Bentavious Thompson. They combined for 118 yards on 30 attempts with a pair of trips to the endzone each.
But the defense gave up 471 yards of offense to Georgia Tech with no sacks. Certainly, they were underwhelming.
While those stats look bad on the surface, it is difficult to criticize a unit that held their opponents scoreless in the third quarter. On top of that, UCF forced five turnovers and blocked a field goal attempt. They also recovered a fumble forced into the endzone for points that was overturned.
All that while playing as the counterpart of an offense who plays so fast that the defense is forced to spend more time on the field as a result, and that’s not even accounting for how it confuses officials.
Are The Fans Done With “Fire Heupel” And “Bench Gabriel”?
Going into this football game, there were skeptics out in the UCF nation. Would Dillon Gabriel be ready to win a Power 5 game on the road? Sure, the man under center did lose to Pitt last year as a freshman but it’s also forgotten that it was on the last play of the game.
Gabriel also lost in two other road games against Cincinnati and Tulsa. This could be why he faced questions in the preceding press conference regarding preparation in starting a road contest.
But for fans that cut the quarterback slack, they more than likely blamed head coach Josh Heupel. If not for letting his field general run the ball enough despite having one of the deepest running back corps around, it was some other perceived boggle with “play-calling.”
Maybe only four losses (including postseason games) with an offense averaging more than 43 points per game isn’t enough to assure job security?
However, with the sophomore passer hauling it 30 yards on eight carries to supplement his 417-yard career day in the air on the road against a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, things may change. Perhaps letting the man on the sidelines who plots the course taken for the weekly journey to go “1-0” keep his headset for a while longer is a good plan after all.