John Denton's Knights Insider: Previewing the East Carolina Game

Oct. 29, 2010

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - College football might someday establish a playoff system, but until that time, `do-or-die' regular-season games like Saturday's UCF-East Carolina showdown will suffice.

In many ways, the much-anticipated game between the two Conference USA powerhouse programs has the feel of a winner-take-all playoff game. With UCF at 5-2 overall and 3-0 in C-USA play and East Carolina sitting at 5-2 and 4-0, the winner will have a stranglehold on winning the league's East Division. And considering the shaky state of the West Division, Saturday's survivor will also be the heavy favorite to host the C-USA title game in early December.

``They understand what's at stake and you don't really have to even talk about games like this,'' UCF head coach George O'Leary said. ``If they don't understand what on the line here they shouldn't be wearing a helmet. We've still got a lot of football left to play, but there are certain games that put you in the driver's seat if you can win them. This is certainly one of those.''

With a victory on Saturday at Bright House Networks Stadium, UCF could put itself in position to play in the C-USA title game for a third time. Also, the Knights could crack the Top 25 national rankings for the first time in school history after climbing to the ``others receiving votes'' category last week following their third consecutive victory of the season.

UCF and East Carolina have evolved into the two best teams in the conference as evidenced by them combining to win each of the past three league titles. Both come into this game having won nine C-USA games in a row - UCF hasn't lost since falling to ECU last fall, while the Pirates are on a run that includes the league championship victory against Houston last December.

``Momentum is huge in football and I'm a big believer in having it,'' senior defensive end David Williams said. ``Having momentum the way we do, it creates confidence for us and a lack thereof for the other team. Coming into this game with a winning streak like we have, it really helps us a lot. But East Carolina has great momentum too, so you have to think this is going to be a clash of two great Conference USA teams. The best team will come out on top.''

UCF will honor the one millionth fan to enter Bright House Networks Stadium on Saturday. The Knights have been almost unbeatable in conference play at home, winning the last six league games at BHNS over the past two seasons. O'Leary is hoping for a huge, loud crowd that bother East Carolina's check-at-the-line offense with its noise.

``It is one thing to get a call from the sideline and it is another to get it to your teammates,'' O'Leary said. ``I'm sure (East Carolina) will bring a crowd. They have a great following. Our fans need to be in the seats early and get active in this one because it is going to make a difference, especially when they have the ball, as far as helping us out.''

Spicing up the rivalry is the fact that East Carolina has been the one team that has had the upper hand on the Knights in C-USA play. The Pirates have beaten UCF four times in a row, using the last two to go on and win the league crown. In those games, UCF has turned the ball over a whopping 15 times with four of them coming in last season's crushing 19-14 loss in Greenville, N.C.

``In all of those games against them we turned the ball over and let them have big plays and we can't allow that again,'' UCF senior linebacker Derrick Hallman said. ``It definitely is a statement game for us. ... This is the biggest opponent that we'll play this year.''

In many ways, the matchup is a battle of the immoveable object against the unbreakable foe. UCF's defense has been one of the best in the country all season, ranking seventh in the nation in total defense. UCF's pass defense ranks ninth overall and first in C-USA, allowing just 158.2 yards a game through the air. And the Knights are eighth in scoring defense (13.86 points per game) and ninth in run defense (101.43 yards per game).

And that defense will be put to the test by East Carolina's pass-happy offense led by quarterback Dominique Davis and dynamic wide receiver Dwayne Harris. The Pirates rank 16th in the country in scoring (36.9 points per game) and 11th in passing yards per game (303.3).

Junior quarterback Dominique Davis, who played briefly at Boston College and faced UCF in 2008, has thrived in the wide-open offensive, run-and-shoot attack. He has three 300-yard passing games, including 376 in the home win against NS State. Despite not joining East Carolina until four weeks before the opener this season, Davis has completed 63 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,023 yards and 18 touchdowns.

``This is a huge game for us because we're playing for the top of the conference,'' said UCF defensive end Bruce Miller, who has three sacks so far this season and will be chasing Davis all game long. ``They have enough skill players on offense to compete with anybody in the country. It's a big task for us. Putting pressure on the quarterback will be huge for us. Getting pressure on that quarterback is a huge point of emphasis.''

Harris is among East Carolina's career leaders in receptions (221), yards (2,482) and touchdown catches (15), and he's in the midst of his finest season yet. Harris, who has caught a pass in 38 straight games, is sixth in the nation in catches per game (7.7) and has 604 receiving yards and five TD catches.

Harris hurt the Knights last season with a rushing touchdown and a receiving score and his showdown against UCF standout cornerback Josh Robinson could likely swing the balance of the game in one direction or another.

East Carolina has certainly had its struggles defensively, giving up 35.3 points a game, which ranks 10th in the nation. Tulsa and Virginia Tech scored 49 points, Southern Miss put up 43 and blew a 20-point lead and NC State scored 27 points. The Knights are well aware that they will likely need to put up a lot of points to win, but O'Leary said one key will be not getting lulled into East Carolina's up-tempo pace.

``They put a lot of points on the board and I have been impressed with that. Our defense will have to play very steady and have a great understanding of what is in front them,'' O'Leary said. ``But I don't see it being a track meet. I don't think that is the kind of game that we want to get involved in. We score points too, so we can get into one. I like to mix it up and make sure the line of scrimmage is honest.''


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John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.