ORLANDO, FL – The UCF Knights (3-2) avoid dropping three straight as the Pirates of East Carolina (3-3) failed to plunder the Bounce House, 20-16.
The Knights’ defense welcomed back linebacker Tatum Bethune and defensive back Corey Thornton from injury, and the improvement was apparent from the first couple of snaps. They forced a fumble and then delivered a bone-crushing tackle for a short gain. While the defense bent plenty, they would rarely break throughout the game, as they allowed only three points in the first half.
The Pirates’ man under center, veteran Holton Alhers, did his part to move the ball up and down the field. However, the Knights would force turnovers, stop them in the red zone to settle for field goals or penalties would push back crucial gains for East Carolina. Running back Keaton Mitchell was also kept under control considering the Knights’ struggles in stopping the run. ECU’s offense passed for 219 yards on 20-of-32 with a touchdown and an interception. Meanwhile, Mitchell recorded 73 yards on 13 carries following his 222-yard performance against Tulane last Saturday.
Quarterback Mikey Keene started his second consecutive contest of the year, filling in for the injured Dillon Gabriel. After a solid start against Navy, it seemed he and his receivers were not in sync with a number of drops and mental errors throughout the game. Keene finished with 23-of-35 with 194 yards passing with an interception.
After the half, the score was knotted up 3-3. Keene threw his pick deep in Knights’ territory, but defense held the Pirates to a second Owen Daffer field goal inside the 30 to make it 6-3. UCF then began handing the ball off to running back Johnny Richardson, who delivered a 38-yard scamper to set up his four-yard score for the first touchdown of the game. Richardson turned in 104 yards and a score on 16 carries.
After the Pirates sailed back ahead for the fourth of five lead changes in the game, UCF Kicker Daniel Obarski booted a career-long 40-yard field goal to make it 16-13 with 5:30 left in the contest. He delivered the kick over the din of booing fans who wanted head coach Gus Malzahn to go for it on fourth down. As it turned out, Malzahn was putting trust in his defense, who he said had its best game so far this season to get the ball back for the offense.
“Offensively, [ECU] is really scary,” said Malzahn. “For our defense to play like they did I thought [defensive coordinator] Coach Williams and his staff had a great plan for our guys and our guys executed it. And we were worried about stopping the run with a guy that was averaging 10 yards every time he touches it – we did that.”
As Keene managed the team the best he had all night, it was running back Marc-Anthony Richards who accounted for 39 of the 64 yards on the game-winning drive, as he dove across the line from one yard out to give the Knights the win.
UCF had three takeaways in the stat sheet despite losing star defensive tackle Kalia Davis late, and Bethune led the team with 17 tackles in his return to health. For the first time in a long time, the Knights’ offense was the concern instead of the defense. It is clear that missing Gabriel, top running back Isaiah Bowser and top wide receiver Jaylon Robinson have taken a toll on the team’s productivity.
Regardless of who is still on the field for the Knights, it is clear that they will need to improve. Especially since they are facing a #5 Cincinnati team next who is in the national conversation for a College Football Playoff berth…and that’s without mentioning the nationally televised noon EST slot on ABC.