THE MATCHUP: PITT (2-2) AT #13 UCF (3-0)
WHEN: 3:30 P.M. EST
WHERE: SPECTRUM STADIUM, ORLANDO, FL
HOW TO WATCH: ESPNU
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
After a 2-2 start to the season, which included a 45-point loss to Penn State and yet another defeat to North Carolina, optimism surrounding the Panthers’ 2018 season is waning. Unfortunately for fans, week-five offers little promise for a turnaround as Pitt must face a team now recognized by the NCAA as last year’s co-national champions, the Central Florida Knights, against whom the Panthers are 13-point underdogs.
Playing in the American Athletic Conference, Central Florida mirrors the Boise State program of ten years ago; despite exhibiting on-field dominance, their wins are not valued like those of teams from Power 5 conferences. Regardless of their weak strength-of-schedule, UCF’s 16-game winning streak leads the nation, and after beating Auburn 34-27 in the 2017 Peach Bowl, the Knights proved that they can compete with a team that defeated both participants in the 2017 National Championship game. Their chances of reaching the 2018 College Football Playoff may be slim, but Central Florida can play with the best in the FBS.
UCF will take the field Saturday under first-year head coach Josh Heupel. Following the program’s success in 2017, Head Coach Scott Frost – a renowned offensive guru – accepted the head coaching position at his alma mater, Nebraska. Central Florida turned to Heupel, Missouri’s offensive coordinator for the past two seasons, to preserve the team’s offensive brilliance.
So far, UCF has looked just as sharp under Heupel, who many may remember for quarterbacking Oklahoma to the 2000 national championship. They began the season by blowing out Connecticut on the road, 56-17, and followed that by shutting out South Carolina State at home, 38-0. After the postponement of their week-three game at North Carolina, Central Florida defeated Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic Owls, 56-36.
In their three wins, UCF is outscoring opponents 77-26 in the second half. Pitt will have to rectify their second half woes, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, if they wish to keep pace with the high-scoring Knights.
The Knights’ up-tempo, spread offense, averaging 587.7 total yards-per-game (5th in the FBS), is led by junior quarterback McKenzie Milton. After winning AAC Offensive Player of the Year and finishing eighth in Heisman voting last year, Milton is back in force, accounting for over 1,000 total yards in just three games. Through the air, he has completed 66-of-103 passes for 895 yards, 9 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. At 5-feet-11-inches tall, Milton may be undersized, but his athleticism makes him one of the most dangerous playmakers in the country. He can extend passing plays with his legs, and with 23 carries for 154 yards and 3 touchdowns, he is the team’s second leading rusher.
Milton distributes the ball to a corps of wide receivers led by breakthrough sophomore Gabriel Davis. Davis, at 6-feet-3-inches and 212 pounds, has emerged as Milton’s top target on the outside, registering 20 receptions for 242 yards and 3 touchdowns. Tre Nixon – a former 4-star recruit who transferred from Ole Miss this offseason – has 11 receptions for 187 yards and 2 touchdowns, while Dredrick Snelson adds 197 yards and a touchdown out of the slot. Considering Pitt’s struggles with covering slot receivers this season, Snelson may be a name to watch.
The Knights’ passing attack may elicit considerable concern within Panther fans after North Carolina’s struggling quarterback threw for 313 yards and two touchdowns last week, but don’t overlook their ground game. UCF runs the ball 55-percent of the time, dispersing carries between Milton and a productive group of backs. The diminutive Adrian Killins, Jr., standing at 5-feet-8-inches and 164 pounds, is the team’s leading rusher with 193 yards and 3 touchdowns on 33 attempts. A 2017 first-team All-AAC honoree, Killins is a former a high school track star from the speed-rich state of Florida who can catch the ball out of the backfield.
Complimenting Killins is the larger Taj McGowan, a 6-foot-1-inch, 210-pounder. And Greg McCrae, though third on the depth chart, is earning touches by averaging 8.2 yards-per-carry.
Without a doubt, Milton and his backs are all skilled runners, but they benefit from playing behind an offensive line that returns three starters, including 2017 first-team All-AAC center Gabriel Davis and 2017 second-team All-AAC left tackle Wyatt Miller.
On the defensive side is where Panther fans may find hope for Saturday. Allowing 396.7 yards-per-game, the Knights rank 87th in total defense – one spot behind the Panthers. They concede 239.0 yards-per-game on the ground (119th in the FBS), which may bode well for a Pitt offense whose success has come primarily in the run game. The Panthers will also want to run the ball effectively on Saturday, considering that UCF’s seven interceptions ties them for second-best in the nation.
Up front, UCF’s depth chart reflects an “or” at one starting defensive tackle position and one defensive end position, leaving some uncertainty as to who will start. Titus Davis, who switched from outside linebacker to defensive end in the offseason, is the end who has earned the start after registering 12 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, 1 sack and 1 pass breakup in 2018. Joey Connors, a 6-foot-1-inch, 313-pound defensive tackle, is the other starter without an “or” listed next to his name. And defensive tackle Trysten Hill, a 2017 second-team All-AAC honoree, is a player who will receive significant playing time – whether as a starter or backup.
At linebacker, UCF must replace Shaquem Griffin, who many may know as the player who had his left hand amputated as a child, yet displayed incredible athleticism at the combine and is now a member of the Seattle Seahawks. Middle linebacker Pat Jasinski, the team’s leading tackler last year, returns as an anchor in the middle, though. The senior has 26 tackles (tied for first on team), 2.5 tackles-for-loss and 1 interception.
In the secondary, Mike Hughes was drafted in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft, leaving the Knights without their top cornerback from last year. Redshirt-junior Nevelle Clark has elevated his play without Hughes, compiling 14 total tackles, 3 tackles-for-loss, 1 sack and 3 pass breakups.
And at the safety positions, UCF features a pair of playmakers. Kyle Gibson, the team’s strong safety, earned first-team All-AAC honors in 2017, and free safety Richie Grant is on his way to all-conference honors this year with 26 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery.
|Points Per Game||24.5||28.6||50.0||17.7|
|Yards Gained Rushing||952||878||891||779|
|Yards Lost Rushing||103||114||21||62|
|Average Yards Per Rush||5.4||4.9||6.5||4.8|
|Average Yards Per Game||212.3||191.0||290.0||239.0|
|Average Yards Per Game||6.1||7.8||304.0||157.7|
|Average Yards Per Play||5.7||6.0||7.4||5.1|
|Average Yards Per Game||361.0||396.3||594.0||396.7|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||9-228||4-94||8-140||16-367|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||8-24||7-58||6-84||2-0|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||3-99||3-42||7-99||3-12|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||25.3||23.5||17.5||22.9|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||3.0||8.3||14.0||0.0|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||33.0||14.0||14.1||4.0|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||7-4||8-4||0-0||2-2|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||29-254||20-160||18-177||21-215|
|Average Per Game||63.5||40.0||59.0||71.7|
|PUNTS – YARDS||20-744||18-741||7-267||14-605|
|NET YARDS PER PUNT||34.3||38.7||37.6||43.4|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||30:41||29:19||24:51||35:09|
|4th Down Percentage||40%||40%||33%||60%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||8-59||7-67||4-18||1-5|
|Killins, Jr., Adrian||33||193||5.8||3||24|
Pitt at Central Florida kicks off at 3:30pm. It will be the second time these two teams meet, with Pitt leading the all-time series, 1-0. The game will be aired on ESPNU and can be heard on 93.7 the Fan. Our Alan Saunders will be live from the game in Orlando and the Pittsburgh Sports Now staff will provide in-game updates and observations via Twitter.