John Denton's Knights Insider: Big Football Game Tonight at Houston

Nov. 5, 2010

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Another high-profile, pass-happy opponent. Another ESPN game on a non-traditional night with maximum exposure. And a second game against one of the leaders in Conference USA in as many weeks.

Forgive the UCF Knights, if there's a been-there, done-that feel to Friday night's nationally televised game against the Houston Cougars. So far this season, the Knights have passed all of those tests and now they are hoping to do the same in Houston and remain unbeaten in C-USA play.

A week after throttling East Division leaders East Carolina 49-35, the Knights (6-2 overall and 4-0 in league play) face West Division leaders Houston (5-3, 4-1). This game was billed as a possible C-USA title game preview early in the season, and that's held form even though the Cougars lost record-breaking quarterback Case Keenum early on with a knee injury.

The Knights would like nothing more than to beat Houston on Friday at Robertson Stadium and then see the Cougars again in four weeks in Orlando because it would mean UCF would be back in the C-USA title game for a third time in six seasons.

UCF, winners of 10 straight league games over the past two seasons, sits just outside of the Top 25 rankings and desperately wants its first spot in the national polls, but foremost in the team's line of sight is remaining perfect on the conference and that berth in the title game.

``We don't have any control of anybody's votes so I think winning takes care of that and the only thing we are concerned with is the conference and the conference championship,'' UCF coach George O'Leary said.

UCF can dare to dream about the conference title game because it is playing its best football of the season. The Knights have won four games in a row to build what is, in essence, a two-game lead over East Carolina in the East Division. And they are in that spot because both their offense and defense have been dominant at times, making the Knights a surging, confident team. UCF has scored at least 35 points in each of the past four weeks and the defense still ranks in the top 15 in the nation is almost every important category.

``I think momentum is a huge part of the game, even play to play within a game, it's huge. You have a good play and then another and you keep building off that,'' said right guard Nick Pieschel, who has teamed with Jah Reid and Adam Nissley to give UCF a dominant rushing attack on the right side of the line. ``We're four games in right now and we just need to keep it going against Houston and build on our momentum. We can't stop now.''

Tailback Ronnie Weaver and the developing chemistry of the offensive line have been big reasons for UCF's solid run of late. Weaver, a former walk-on who worked his way into a scholarship, has run for 612 yards and 10 touchdowns in the past six games. Including in that stretch, was a 130-yard effort against Kansas State, 150 yards at Marshall in the rain and a career-best 180 a week ago against East Carolina.

Reid, UCF's massive right tackle, is playing at an All-Conference level again. Nissley is arguably the most physically gifted tight end in the league and Pieschel shored up the inside by moving from tackle to guard. Jordan Rae has been one of the surprises of the season at center, giving UCF a dominant front wall of blockers.

``It's just a team effort with Ron and Latavius (Murray) running really hard and we're blocking our butts off out there,'' Pieschel said. ``In the beginning of the season we were coming off the ball tentative and not playing as hard as we should, but now we've gotten back to firing off the ball every time as hard as we can and we're playing well.''

Facing Houston and its up-tempo, spread offense will be almost like a replay of a week ago against East Carolina. UCF blew out to a big lead against the Pirates by scoring on seven of its eight drives where it didn't down the ball to kill the clock to force ECU into desperation mode. Dominique Davis and Dwayne Harris, arguably the best passing duo in C-USA, riddled the Knights defense for a lot of yards - 310 for Davis and 146 for Harris - but UCF was able to do enough to get the victory.

Houston will come after UCF with a similar style, using the pass to set up the run instead of the other way around. Quarterback David Piland has picked up where Keenum's record-breaking run ended, throwing for 1,108 yards and 11 touchdowns in the past four games. Receivers Patrick Edwards (42 catches, 639 yards, eight TDs), James Cleveland (36 catches, 532 yards, four TDs) and Tyron Carrier (33 catches and 296 yards) give the Cougars a multi-dimensional attack that can strike from anywhere on the field.

``They are very similar to East Carolina. They are probably a much quicker tempo as far as timing at the line of scrimmage, but they are pretty much the same in a spread set,'' O'Leary said. ``(Piland) has progressed each game. You can see him getting a little better each game as far as what he is doing with the ball and where he is delivering it. They have always had good, skilled athletes at wide receiver that catch a lot of balls. They throw a lot more deep balls than East Carolina has thrown, but they are very similar.''

One thing that O'Leary hopes is similar come Friday night is how the Knights play on ESPN. The Knights routed UAB and Marshall in two midweek broadcasts by ESPN, and this game is another big chance for the Knights to show the football world that they are a legitimate team worthy of a national ranking and quite possibly a spot in the C-USA title game in four weeks. But O'Leary said exposure can work one of two ways - teams can either get the national exposure they are seeking or they can be exposed. He said it's up to the Knights to prove that they are worthy of being considered an elite team.

``Anytime you are on national TV, you cannot buy that exposure; you can go to marketing all you want. Anytime you are on a Friday night show or Thursday night, anytime you are on national TV, ESPN, it is a great marketing tool for the university and exposure throughout the whole country,'' said O'Leary, whose Knights beat Houston 37-32 in Orlando last season. ``The biggest problem coaches have is making sure (the players) keep their minds on the field and not the camera. It's another game. We have had a couple of ESPN games already. It's another game that you can get great exposure as far as for your school and vice versa you can get exposed. It works both ways.''