Replay: Knights Are Lights Out in First Half (Again)

Somewhere today UCF head coach Josh Heupel is poring through video clips of his Knights in the first half of games at Spectrum Stadium.
He's recalling the game plans and early play calls and scribbling details of the results.
Because if he can diagnose exactly why things go so well in those opening 30 minutes in Orlando and then bottle it, he might market it to all of college football.
Because the results are fascinatingly one-sided and overwhelming—and they played out exactly the same way Saturday night in Orlando as the Knights scored touchdowns on their first five possessions and rolled to a 35-6 halftime advantage against East Carolina.
And that was more than enough to pave the way for a 41-28 final score, as UCF (5-2 overall, 2-1 AAC) bounced back from its road loss at Cincinnati two weeks ago.
Think about how dominant the Knights have been in those four first halfs:
--They are outscoring their opponents 163-13.
--They are averaging 263.2 passing yards in those first two quarters, outgaining foes 1,053-271 in that category.
--They average 420.5 total yards per first half.
--They have scored a stunning 22 touchdowns to only one by UCF opponents.
All that has translated to an average halftime score of 40.7 to 3.2.
Saturday against the Pirates the first quarter alone produced 250 total offensive yards by UCF.
Now, if the Knights can project those numbers over four periods of play (and market that formula on the side), they'll be rich.
"Go play for each other all night long," Heupel told his charges moments before kickoff.
"Play with your hair on fire.
"Play as hard as you possibly can, get back up and then go do the same thing the next play."
And, wow, did that ever translate early. UCF did not capitalize as much with its signature big-strike long plays, but the Knights were clinical in their domination.
Eight plays, 92 yards.
Eight plays, 79 yards.
Eleven plays, 90 yards.
Seven plays, 75 yards.
Four plays, 55 yards.
All five of those possessions resulted in UCF TDs. That's with a huge assist from the Knights' defense that forced punts on East Carolina's first three possessions (only 76 net yards by the Pirates on those drives) and five of its first six.
By the time UCF led 14-0, freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel already had connected on eight of his first 10 throws for 154 yards. And there were still five minutes left in the first period.
Even a fourth-and-four play call hardly fazed the Knights. Bentavious Thompson burst right up the middle untouched for 32 yards and the home team led 21-0. UCF scored those 21 first-period points against a Pirate defense that had allowed only a combined 24 in its first six games in those opening quarters.
Darriel Mack Jr. jumped in at quarterback for one series and on his second play delivered a perfect strike to Gabe Davis for 33 yards and a 28-0 lead. By that stage Davis already had his fourth straight game of at least 100 receiving yards.
The first half took a physical toll, but the Knights proceeded unabated. At intermission East Carolina had rushed 27 times for only 65 yards.
Heck, UCF has been so good out of the gate in front of its home fans the Knights have had to work to keep their own fans engaged after halftime.
Credit East Carolina for staying the course Saturday night.
The Pirates blocked a punt in the first minute of the second half and needed a single play from the one to score their first TD. Their longest march of the night (74 yards) produced a field goal. A lost fumble by UCF led to another Pirate score that made it 35-22. The visitors scored 16 third-period points Saturday after scoring only 10 in their six previous third periods in 2019.
Just when there was some thought things might get really interesting, Gabriel found Tre Nixon (he finished with three catches for 103 yards) on a 53-yard TD play down the UCF sideline to end any drama.
"Offensively, defensively, special teams, a lot of good stuff in the first half," Heupel told his team. "You played your butts off.
"Don't take winning for granted ever. You did a lot of good things and found a way to get a W.
"Put a smile on your face."
The Knights forced a pair of second-half turnovers (an interception by Antwon Collier and a forced fumble by Stephon Zayas that linebacker Eric Mitchell recovered). UCF had a dozen tackles for loss—as linebacker Nate Evans made 10 tackles and Mitchell and corner Zamari Maxwell added nine apiece.
Gabriel threw for a season-best 365 yards and Davis had another stellar outing with his nine grabs for 164 yards and two scores (he's now tied for the NCAA lead in scoring receptions with 10).
More than anything, the Knights were simply happy to get back on the field after an open weekend and wipe away the final taste of their loss at Cincinnati.
Now, UCF looks squarely at another prime-time road assignment against a dangerous 5-2 Temple team.
Sometime this week, Heupel will try to find a way to sprinkle some of that first-half pixie dust around the locker room next Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field.
In four home games the Knights have punted only a combined five times in the opening two quarters.
Gabriel in those four home first halfs has completed 46 of his 63 passes for 852 yards (that's 213 yards per first two periods) and nine TD connections.
And if Heupel and his Knights can duplicate that hometown first-half pace, look out.