UCF - Pitt: Five Things to Watch

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Fair or not, UCF's victory last week versus Pac-12 member Stanford—especially because the Knights roared out to a 38-7 halftime lead—earned Josh Heupel's program a little extra attention and recognition. And it definitely didn't hurt that freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel played particularly well, earning multiple player-of-the-week designations.
That added attention will be there again this week as the Knights meet Atlantic Coast Conference representative Pittsburgh. This game is the back half of a home-and-home series that saw UCF prevail 45-14 over the Panthers last September in Spectrum Stadium.
Here are some areas to watch when the 15th-rated Knights trek to Pittsburgh:

  1. Can UCF keep up anywhere near this statistical pace? (We asked this question last week and the week before.) The Knights have maintained a pinball pace so far in 2019, continuing to lead the nation in both first downs and tackles for loss. This week UCF is sixth in victory margin (at 38 points per game), behind only Wisconsin, Baylor, Georgia, Maryland and Alabama. The Knights are one of 35 FBS teams without a loss heading into the fourth weekend of the season. UCF is one of a select few teams to rank in the top 15 on both offense and defense (the Knights are third on offense, 13th on defense). The Knights are one of 26 teams yet to throw an interception in 2019.     
  2. Can Gabriel do it again? As much as Josh Heupel and UCF offensive coordinator/quarterback coach Jeff Lebby loved what freshman Dillon Gabriel gave them in his 22-for-30 throwing effort versus Stanford, they are quick to caution it marked only the second start for the rookie. Coaches are big on being able to count on consistent production from their players, so Heupel and Lebby will be looking to see if Gabriel can stack some comparable productive outings together. It may be challenging for Gabriel to maintain his fourth-in-the-nation NCAA passing efficiency standing—but Knight fans will enjoy watching him try. Plus, Pitt fans will be quick to note that their quarterback, junior Kenny Pickett, is 61 for 88 for 693 combined yards, one TD and zero INTs in his last two outings. Last year against UCF in Orlando Pickett was 16 of 26 for 163 yards and one TD (he was sacked three times). He ranks fifth nationally at 27.33 completions per game this year. But UCF is fourth this week nationally in team pass efficiency defense.
  3. They don't make many mistakes. Both these teams put a premium on avoiding turnovers. UCF ranks third nationally in turnovers lost—with only a single lost fumble late against Stanford. Pitt has yet to lose a fumble in 2019 (one of 13 teams in that category) and threw its only two interceptions in the opening loss to Virginia. So don't expect either of these teams to do much to help the other—and consider the possibility that a big turnover at the right time could be a game-changing event at Heinz Field. 
  4. And you wonder why coaches harp on special teams. UCF's torrid pace on offense, not to mention the fact the Knights' defense has forced 30 combined punts, puts a real onus on special teams in 2019. That has translated (over the first three games) to 114 combined special-team opportunities (38 per game), including those 30 opponent punts, 26 kickoffs and 21 PATs. Any one of those plays could make or break a game for the Knights, and that's why UCF special team coach Nick Toth spends the hours that he does coordinating all that.
  5. What motivation will Pitt have? Coaches are quick to dismiss results from last Saturday and even last year and suggest that it's all about execution on game day. True enough. Yet, you wonder if the Panthers will feel like they have a point to prove after last year's contest in Spectrum Stadium where UCF doubled Pitt's offensive output (568-272 in total yards) and nearly did the same in first downs (31-16). The Knights led 31-7 at halftime, and McKenzie Milton threw a scoring pass in each of the four periods.