Knights face nightmare USF

UCF v USF on Thanksgiving

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  • | 8:30 a.m. November 23, 2015
Photo by: Isaac Babcock - UCF wide receiver Breshad Perriman catches the game-winning touchdown against the USF Bulls Nov. 29.
Photo by: Isaac Babcock - UCF wide receiver Breshad Perriman catches the game-winning touchdown against the USF Bulls Nov. 29.
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On a rainy field a week before Thanksgiving, UCF scored the first touchdown of the game against East Carolina, then let the Pirates score 44 unanswered points to bury them in the mud. Now on Thanksgiving night the Knights face a USF team that just destroyed one of the most potent offenses in college football.

“We are a young team and you don’t have anything positive going, so it is hard to stay motivated,” acting UCF head coach Danny Barrett said in a postgame press conference.

An announced crowd of 23,734 — which appeared to be a quarter of that by halftime — watched UCF’s most overwhelming loss of the season on Nov. 19. East Carolina (5-6, 3-4) had represented the Knights’ last slim chance of a win, statistically. Odds-makers had expected the Pirates to win by only 15 points. In the past two seasons the Knights (0-11, 0-7) had shown a knack for rapid back-to-back scores to claw their way back into games that seemingly had gotten away from them. Not this time.

After a balanced 71-yard UCF opening drive, which started with a sack and a fumble and ended in the end zone, the Knights let ECU score quickly, then on the ensuing kickoff, as has happened many times in 2015, a UCF kick returner fumbled the ball and gave it right back to the other team. It took ECU just 67 seconds to score again, and by then, the rout was on. The Knights tried to answer on the next drive, but Holman, throwing a would-be TD pass, was intercepted at the 7-yard line.

The Knights’ struggling defense, which had done well to keep the offense within striking distance in the first half of the season, collapsed against the Pirates, allowing a formerly benched ECU backup quarterback to have a career game.

Blake Kemp lit up the Knights for 465 yards in the air, more than any he’d thrown all season, connecting on four passing touchdowns — a career high. His favorite target, Isaiah Jones, caught 14 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns. Pirates running back Chris Hairston raced to 123 yards on 14 carries, penetrating the UCF defense with seeming ease.

Knights QB Justin Holman would lead UCF on its only successful drive of the game, but with 4:30 left in the second quarter, he was hit hard while completing a pass to Tristan Payton, and didn’t get up for several minutes. The high ankle sprain he sustained in the play ended his season.

By that point in the game, he had thrown for 110 yards and a touchdown.

Holman’s replacements, Tyler Harris and Bo Schneider, with several games of playing time between them this season, combined for 2-for-15 in passing.

Most of the Knights’ offensive momentum had already long since shuddered to a crawl by the time Holman’s season ended on the Knights’ 28 yard line. Of the 232 yards the Knights would gain in the game, 137 of them came before Holman exited with two-thirds of the game left, and 112 of them came in the first two drives of the first quarter. The only drive afterward that resulted in more than one first down was propelled almost entirely by the legs of running back Taj McGowan, who offensive coordinator Brent Key hadn’t used in the game until that point. McGowan, handed the ball in just two drives of the fourth quarter, quickly amassed the biggest running night of any UCF player, racing to 51 yards on 10 carries.

By then any shot at a comeback was long gone. East Carolina cranked out 622 yards of offense, with UCF’s defense allowing 9.1 yards per attempt on passing, and 7.3 yards per carry on the ground, moving with seeming impunity. The Pirates collected 31 first downs to UCF’s 12.

In the process of falling for their 11th time this season, tying 2004 for the UCF all-time record for most losses in a single year, the Knights have descended to the bottom of almost every team statistic in the 127-team NCAA FBS. Turnovers again hurt the Knights, who are now tied for second worst team for turnover margin in the FBS. They also have thrown the second most interceptions in the FBS, with 21 thrown in 11 games. The Knights’ pass defense, which two years ago was among the best in the nation, is now ranked the second worst in pass efficiency, allowing opponents to complete more than 65 percent of passes, and allowing an FBS second-worst 28 total passing TDs.

That UCF had bottomed out in so many categories immediately following an uptick in performance in a moderately close loss to Tulsa last week bothered some players.

“To go from playing better, like we did against Tulsa, to just not getting it done, it sucks, it’s not good, unacceptable,” senior Thomas Niles said after the ECU loss.

But were it not for one player, the season could be even worse. Fittingly, as the Knights are suffering through one of their worst offensive years in team history — in last place for almost the entire 2015 season for offensive yardage per game — they have one of the best punt teams in the nation. Caleb Houston, who has kicked the vast majority of UCF’s 70 punts this season, is averaging more than 40 net yards per punt, putting him at near the top 10 in the FBS and No. 1 in the American Athletic Conference. His backup, redshirt freshman Mac Loudermilk, averaged 50 yards per punt in his one game this season.

The Knights now face a USF team that has haunted them in the past and has surged to near the top of the American Athletic Conference this week with a devastating 65-27 blowout over Cincinnati’s high-powered offense on Saturday.

And USF (7-4, 5-2) won’t just be playing a rivalry game: they’ll be playing for a shot at the AAC championship. If the Bulls win Thursday and Temple (9-2, 6-1) loses on Saturday to UConn (6-5, 4-3) — which just beat formerly undefeated Houston (10-1, 6-1) — then USF goes to the title game.

The Knights can play the role of spoilers, but they’ll have to overcome a predicted 23-point margin, according to USA Today’s Sagarin ratings. And the Knights will be playing USF with two backup freshman quarterbacks who combined for 21 passing yards in nearly two and a half quarters of play last week, against a team that has allowed an average of 222 passing yards per game this season.

Barrett, in what likely is his last game heading UCF, will try to avoid becoming the third coach in team history to not win a single game.

The turkey day special starts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Bright House, televised on ESPN.


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