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It’s usually not wise to buy into the early-game criticism of the UCF fan. Often, if an opponent can score on the first drive, they begin to call for the head of defensive coordinator Randy Shannon. If the Knights show even the slightest of miscues on offense, the apocalypse is sure to set in moments later on social media posts.
After all, “fan” is short for “fanatic.”
However, the product on the field put forth in front of a national TV audience to open the 51-28 Knight victory over the East Carolina Pirates offered even the most hyperbolic doomsayer instant credibility.
This begs the question, “How bad could it be?”
Fair to ask. The football gods call for a sloppy game every now and again. This was one of those, as both teams combined for 30 penalties. However, when your quarterback is declaring your team the best team in Florida and your offense opens the game with four consecutive false starts, that’s a problem.
And when pundits are talking about your team as a potential Group of 5 school to make it into the College Football Playoff in the same breath as they are shocked that a team is ahead after 10 penalties in the opening quarter (14 for the half) that looks bad to the committee members.
Nonetheless, UCF still found themselves with the man under center, Dillon Gabriel, going 8-of-8 for 113 yards and two passing touchdowns to put up a 27-10 halftime lead. Gabriel would finish with 408 yards and four end zone connections, completing 32 of his 47 attempts.
His performance featured a school-record stretch of 18 consecutive passes caught. And that’s without his starting receiver Tre Nixon and at least five first-half drops (three in the end zone). Freshman Jaylon “J-Flash” Robinson stepped up big to lead the team in receiving yards with 150 on nine catches, roping in two of them for points.
From that moment on, the Knights never looked back as they continued to sail past the Pirates. ECU field general Holton Athers was able to move the ball on the aggressive UCF defense at times but turnovers kept the offense from capitalizing. Athers posted for 14-29 with 215 yards and three scores.
The Knights’ ground game did a good job providing balance. Greg McCrae started the contest despite leaving the game early last week. He put up 83 yards on 16 carries with one to break the plane for six. Otis Anderson and Bentavious Thompson also offered 99 yards with 17 handoffs combined.
On defense, UCF did their job once more with four total turnovers. Richie Grant snagged an interception in the end zone late in the third quarter. They also recovered three fumbles in the first half.
While the Knights secured the win, nearly covering the 27-point spread despite early struggles, fans will be chirping on Twitter. Next Saturday is UCF’s home debut, hosting the Tulsa Golden Hurricane: a team that upset them in Oklahoma last year. The talk of “if we play like this against them” facing a Tulsa squad that had Oklahoma State on the ropes before losing 16-7 will murmur throughout the week.
The focus will surely be for head coach Josh Heupel and his staff to get their athletes sharpened up before the primetime kickoff in Orlando on ESPN2, 7:30 EST.
Heupel addressed how he approached the tough start in the postgame press conference. “During the course of the game, you try to correct it and you do it in the right manner where your kids have a chance to hopefully respond to it the right way and you go and do some positive things – and we did that.”
He went on: “You work really hard for very few opportunities. This year, fewer than any other year. Enjoy it. And that’s why you come back on Monday and we’ll learn and we’ll get better.”