By Eddie Melville
The following is the report card for the UCF Football team following their 56-17 season-opening road win over the UConn Huskies on August 30, 2018.
Anytime this unit finds the end zone 8 times, they probably didn’t play terrible. McKenzie Milton and Co. continued from where they left off last year, scoring 56 points and compiling 652 yards of total offense. The Knights averaged 9.3 yards per play, moving the chains 31 times, only punted once, and had no turnovers. Milton was the driving force behind UCFast. The Hawaiian Heisman hopeful completed 24 of 32 pass attempts for 346 yards and 5 touchdowns. His accuracy and touch were impeccable. The 34 yard TD pass he threw to Tre Nixon in the first quarter was everything fans love about KZ: extending the play with his legs and using his arm to fire a perfect deep ball that only his man could catch. McKenzie added 50 yards on 7 carries on the ground and got his team lined up and ready to snap the ball at a break neck pace throughout the game.
The skill position players joined KZ in torturing the UConn D all night long. Adrian Killins started the fireworks show with a 2 yard rushing TD and finished with 82 yards (38 rushing, 44 receiving). As hinted above, Ole Miss transfer Nixon had a huge UCF debut, grabbing 5 balls for 101 yards and 2 touchdowns. His speed was apparent and gives the Knights an embarrassing luxury of talent at the wide receiver position. Dredrick Snelson and Gabriel Davis had 6 receptions apiece for 90 and 40 yards, respectively. Davis found the end zone once and almost found it twice in SC Top 10 fashion if not for stepping out of bounce before the catch. Do-it-all Otis Anderson crossed the goal line twice (1 rushing, 1 receiving); spring football stud Greg McCrae had a 36 yard TD reception on 4th and 2 to end Milton’s stellar night. Backup QB Darriel Mack, Jr. added insult to injury with a 70 yard bootleg touchdown run in his collegiate debut. The offensive line gave up no sacks and controlled the line of scrimmage. About as close to a perfect performance as an offense can have. Grade: A+
A unit that lost several great players from 2017 was a mixed bag in the first game of 2018. UConn QB David Pindell had tons of success running the ball, gaining 157 yards on 22 attempts including a late score. He added 266 yards through the air and 1 touchdown. Despite the fits Pindell seemed to give UCF, the Knights still only yielded 17 points. While the heavy amount of missed tackles is cause for concern, most quarterbacks UCF faces won’t be the pure athlete that Pindell is. The rest of the Huskies did minimal damage as the Knights held RB Kevin Mensah to 59 yards on 20 carries and largely limited deep passing plays. The Huskies did finish with 486 yards of total offense, but some of that was in garbage time. Speaking of time, the UCF defense was on the field for 38 minutes. Some of that was due to the Huskies racking up first downs, but much of that could also be attributed to the Knights scoring at will on offense. One thing UCF did not do at will as rush the quarterback as the defense logged only 2 quarterback hurries and 0 sacks, something that must change in future games.
Individually, there were a few standouts. Senior middle linebacker Pat Jasinski continued his beastly ways, leading all Knights with 11 tackles; he also forced a fumble, broke up a pass, and was the main contributor to slowing down UConn runners not named Pindell. Eric Mitchell had 10 tackles, 0.5 TFL, and 1 pass deflection in his starting debut. Trysten Hill blew up 2 plays in the backfield. Safety Richie Grant had a beautiful interception, jumping a route in the middle of the field. He also recovered a fumble early that swung the momentum and generally made you forget about the departure of Tre Neal. Senior Kyle Gibson had to sit out the first half due to a targeting penalty from the Peach Bowl, but still managed to rack up 4 tackles and 2 pass deflections during the second half. Antwan Collier had 9 tackles, 1.5 TFL, filling in admirably for Gibson. Starting corners Brandon Moore and Nevelle Clarke locked down on receivers and gave up no deep balls. Overall, there are some things that need fixing, but no need to panic just yet, not when the other team scores less than 20. Grade: C+
It’s always a bummer when the most memorable play resulted in injury. Alabama transfer Aaron Robinson had a short lived UCF debut, making a nice tackle on the opening kickoff, but injuring himself in scary fashion in the process. Thankfully, it is reported that Aaron is going to be okay. Still, a tough way to start the season for a young man who had to sit out last year as part of the transfer process and was obviously pumped and ready to hit somebody.
The rest of the special teams action was fairly uneventful. Matthew Wright made all 8 of his extra point tries and kicked 3 touchbacks out of 9 kickoffs. Killins returned kickoffs, but didn’t bust any big returns; Anderson had one short punt return and another punt that he fumbled out of bounds. That fumble may cost him the job going forward. Mac Loudermilk had 1 punt for 31 yards. The Knights did give up one 44 yard return to UConn returner Keylon Dixon, but otherwise didn’t have any major issues on return coverage. In this case, no news is good news. Grade: B
Head coach Josh Heupel had a lot of pressure on him entering Game 1 as the whole nation wondered how the Knights would look under his tutelage coming off a 13-0 National Championship season. The offense couldn’t possibly look as good as it did under Scott Frost, could it? Well, for at least 1 week, it actually looked better. Heupel spread out the Huskies and let McKenzie Milton and his weapons do whatever they wanted. If the Knights were UCFast under Frost, they were pumping Knitrous Oxide under the hood of the Heupmobile. All eight touchdown drives lasted 3 minutes or less, perhaps the football equivalent of the 10 second car from Fast and the Furious. Not to be lost in all this was Heupel’s Knights doing this after seeing one of their own carted off on a stretcher after the first play of the game. Don’t doubt for a second how rattling that could have been yet UCF seemed unfazed, suggesting that there is strong leadership at the top.
If there was any area needing improvement, it was on defense. Defensive coordinator Randy Shannon’s unit missed a lot of tackles, had trouble containing the quarterback, and generally didn’t generate enough of a pass rush. It’s unclear how often the Knights do full takedown tackles in practice, so that could have been a contributing factor; however, wrapping up, driving the legs, and finishing to the ground have to be emphasized going forward. Despite these concerns, it seems that Shannon is preaching turnovers, because the Knights forced three of them and also stood strong twice on 4th down. The bend but don’t break mentality that lost 0 games last year still seems to exist even if it’s not always pretty. The learning curve for Shannon’s defense might be a little trickier than we originally thought, but it does make sense: a 4-3 that often includes a nickel back is just different than the former 3-4 system. Overall, you couldn’t have asked for a better debut for Josh Heupel, his coaching staff or his football team. Those folks slighting UCF in the rankings because of a coaching change might want to come up with better excuses moving forward. Grade: A