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USF football: Five things to know about UCF

Don’t be shocked if the Knights score first, and fast, against the Bulls in Orlando on Friday.
UCF coach Josh Heupel has led the Knights to a 20-4 record on his watch.
UCF coach Josh Heupel has led the Knights to a 20-4 record on his watch. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Nov. 26, 2019

A quick look at UCF (8-3, 6-1 American Athletic Conference), which hosts USF (4-7, 2-5) Friday at 8 at Orlando’s Spectrum Stadium:

1. These dudes start fast

As first impressions go, the Bulls and Knights couldn’t differ more. USF has totaled 48 first-quarter points all year; UCF has scored 163, most in the American Athletic Conference.

In Saturday’s 34-31 win at Tulane, the Knights scored on their opening drive for the eighth time in 11 games.

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2. The defense hasn’t gotten its due

UCF middle linebacker Nate Evans (44) ranks second in the American Athletic Conference with 92 total tackles.
UCF middle linebacker Nate Evans (44) ranks second in the American Athletic Conference with 92 total tackles. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

Despite some preseason question marks up front and the loss of cornerback Brandon Moore (torn ACL) in Game One, the Knights defense has made considerable strides in coordinator Randy Shannon’s second year.

No one has scored more than 35 points on the Knights, and only four defenses nationally own a stiffer third-down conversion rate (28 percent).

UCF ranks second in the AAC in total defense (353.5 ypg) and is limiting opponents to 4.6 yards per play, which ranks first. Additionally, it entered the Tulane contest leading the nation with 9.4 tackles for loss per game; it had nine against the Green Wave.

Middle linebacker Nate Evans, the AAC’s No. 2 tackler (92 total), has evolved into the cornerstone of Shannon’s 4-2-5 alignment. Don’t be shocked, though, if the Knights show more a conventional 4-3 against a Bulls team that barely poses a passing threat.

3. A portrait of balance

UCF's Otis Anderson (2) gets past Pittsburgh's Patrick Jones II (91) on his way to an 87-yard punt-return touchdown during the Panthers' 35-34 victory in September.
UCF's Otis Anderson (2) gets past Pittsburgh's Patrick Jones II (91) on his way to an 87-yard punt-return touchdown during the Panthers' 35-34 victory in September. [ KEITH SRAKOCIC | AP ]

UCF has scored at least one passing and rushing touchdown in 37 consecutive games, the longest such streak in the nation. For context, Clemson ranks second (21).

The Knights enter the “War on I-4” ranked first in the AAC in pass offense (321.2 ypg) and third in rushing offense (215.2). The backfield epitomizes the balance; four backs have at least 60 carries for at least 400 yards, with all four averaging at least 5.3 yards a carry.

MORE BULLS: USF women’s soccer team falls to Florida State in Sweet 16

4. Dillon won this derby

UCF freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel has four 300-yard passing efforts this season.
UCF freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel has four 300-yard passing efforts this season. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

With McKenzie Milton still valiantly trying to return from his horrific knee injury, the Knights turned to the closest Milton replicate they could find.

Freshman left-hander Dillon Gabriel, who hails from the same Hawaii high school and possesses practically the same frame (6-foot, 186 pounds) as Milton, has started the last 10 games following a three-player quarterback derby in August.

Though clearly not as mobile as his predecessor, Gabriel has maximized the fast, physical pass-catching weapons at his disposal. His 3,123 passing yards are a UCF freshman record (and the fifth-highest season total in program history), and his efficiency rating (158.2) ranks 12th nationally.

“What’s really amazing to watch him is, he makes the throws to the outside,” Bulls coach Charlie Strong said. “But the receivers, they go get the football. They go out there and make some plays.”

5. And speaking of those receivers…

The Knights trio of 6-3 junior Gabriel Davis (64 receptions, 1,135 yards, seven touchdowns), 6-2 Ole Miss transfer Tre Nixon (44 catches, 722 yards, seven TDs) and 6-foot junior Marlon Williams (39 receptions, 549 yards, five TDs) can make a solid claim as the AAC’s best pass-catching triumvirate.

The entire receiving corps recently was ranked ninth nationally by Pro Football Focus, according to UCF’s game notes.