UCF - Houston: Five Things to Watch

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UCF made itself bowl-eligible with its win last Saturday night at Temple, qualifying the Knights to be selected for a fourth straight postseason assignment (that's never happened before).
Now, as November dawns, the final four games of the 2019 regular season will determine exactly what happens to the Knights (6-2 overall, 3-1 AAC)—beginning Saturday against league rival Houston (3-5 overall, 1-3 AAC).
Winners of 31 of their last 34 games overall, the Knights are fighting to keep pace in the American Athletic Conference East with a Cincinnati team still unbeaten in league play.
Here are some areas to watch when the Knights take on the Cougars Saturday at Spectrum Stadium on ESPN2:

  1. Will they need sunglasses? It's a rare noon kickoff for the Knights after four straight night games (and six evening starts overall in 2019). It's also UCF's annual nod to its longtime relationship with the space program. The Knights will wear specially designed uniforms—highlighted by a helmet that features different shadings of the moon (craters included) on the two sides.
  2. Look for these teams to try to run it. Both these programs have something of a reputation for winging the football, but these are two teams that love the ground game when all is said and done. Navy, not surprisingly, leads the AAC in rushing—but UCF ranks third (233.9 yards per game) and Houston fourth (206.8). Those numbers rank 17th and 27th, respectively, in the national stats. UCF is coming off a season-best 385 ground yards a week ago at Temple, even in the absence of mainstay Greg McCrae (he's also not expected to be available Saturday against Houston). That just translated to more opportunities for all-purpose veteran Otis Anderson (now the top Knight ground-gainer after 205 rushing yards vs. Temple) and Bentavious Thompson (87 yards and two TDs). Thompson averages 7.9 yards per carry—with Adrian Killins Jr. at 7.6, Anderson at 6.8 and McCrae at 5.6. On the Houston side, Kyle Porter has 479 rushing yards and three TDs to lead that list. The Cougars are one of seven programs in 2019 to have at least four different players rush for 100 yards or more at least once. Houston has had five players do that and only Georgia Southern also has that many. The latest Cougar to fit the bill was senior Mulbah Car last week against SMU (136 yards). 
  3. The skinny on Houston. Start by knowing that four of Houston's five losses have come against ranked opponents—#4 Oklahoma, #20 Washington State, #25 Cincinnati and #16 SMU (those four teams now are a combined 25-6). . . . These are the two winningest teams in the AAC since the league began play (UCF with 38 wins, Houston with 34). . . . The Cougars have the best punter in the AAC—Dane Roy with his 47.1-yard average (sixth nationally). . . . Houston in 2019 has blocked three punts and one field-goal attempt. . . . The Cougars have used six different starting offensive line combinations in their eight games. . . . No team in the country has forced more turnovers than Houston since the start of the 2013 season (180). . . . The Cougars have played in bowl games each of the last six years.
  4. Home sweet home? Only four teams in the country can say they have not lost a home game since the start of the 2017 season and UCF is one of them (Alabama, Clemson and UAB are the others). That bodes well for the Knights Saturday when they look for their fifth homefield victory of 2019 and their 20th in a row overall. The Cougars likely need to be able to withstand an early rush from UCF—the Knights' average halftime lead in 2019 home games is 40.7 points to 3.2. UCF foes have only three first-period TDs so far this year. . . . Interestingly enough, this marks the third straight UCF game (all league contests) in which the Knights face an opponent with a new head coach (Dana Holgorsen of Houston this week, after Mike Houston at East Carolina and Rod Carey at Temple). 
  5. What motivation do these two teams have? The Knights showed themselves last weekend in winning at Temple what it meant to play well in all three phases for 60 minutes (or at least close). That happened because of fewer turnovers, fewer critical penalties and better all-around execution. It also happened due to an amazing second half. The Knights have been better known for their first-half blitzkriegs, but in Philadelphia UCF outscored Temple 35-0 after intermission and outgained the Owns 298-19 in those two periods. After UCF's improvement in those noted categories on the field, they've set a blueprint for themselves—and Knight fans will be eager to see how close to that standard UCF can play the rest of the way.

    Meanwhile, Houston—winners of its last two road games at North Texas and at Connecticut—must find a way to slow down a UCF attack that piles up first downs better than anyone in the nation. The Cougars are allowing 31.1 points, 287.8 passing yards and 459.6 total yards per outing. And Houston will need its own offense to approach the production levels from its three-point home loss to 16th-rated SMU last Thursday when sophomore quarterback Clayton Tune threw for 407 yards (18 of 33 passing) and junior receiver Marquez Stevenson accounted for 211 receiving yards. In other words, the two defenses could well be challenged to prevent a shootout. A Thursday night game last week also gave Houston a couple of extra days to rest and prepare.