Replay: New Recipe, New Way to Win for Knights

There is no shortage of ways to win football games.
UCF of late has leaned on a generally tried-and-true plan that features a fast-paced offense that scores lots of points and dares opponents to somehow score more.
When you lead the nation in total offense and passing (and also fumbles recovered), as the Knights do this morning six games into the 2020 campaign, and your quarterback has thrown for more yards and more touchdowns than any other player in the country (and don't forget a veteran receiver tops in the nation in receiving yards), it's not hard to understand the strategy.
Saturday at Houston (a team tied for first place and unbeaten in American Athletic Conference play), the UCF offensive numbers weren't much different than most Saturdays: 44 points, 681 total yards, 32 first downs and an overwhelming run game that featured 353 yards (a season high).
But it was defense (down four starters) this time that most impressed UCF fans, in great part because it took almost 39 minutes—well into the third quarter—before the Cougar offense put any points on the board.
More than anything, that made the difference in what proved to be a relatively comfortable 44-21 Knights victory.
"You're ready for this opportunity, you're prepared," said UCF coach Josh Heupel to his team before kickoff.
"Trust your brother next to you. Play for one another, play for 60 minutes."
Just when you think the Knights (4-2 overall, 3-2 in AAC play) can't keep gaining yards and scoring at this pace (currently 646.8 yards and 45.2 points), they do.
It was no different in Houston, and Heupel and quarterback Dillon Gabriel are likely to tell you they weren't particularly satisfied with having to "settle" for field goals three times in the first half. Even if UCF had converted two of the three, it could have pushed the halftime advantage to a more cushy 31-7 margin.
Give Houston credit for putting more pressure on Gabriel and trying to be more physical with him than anyone else this fall. That had something to do with the sack and fumble that the Cougars ran in for their only points in the first half.
Other than that, every UCF first-half possession lasted at least 63 yards and produced some sort of points. Gabriel threw the football 49 yards to Jaylon Robinson on the Knights' second play from scrimmage.
Despite the 353 UCF rushing yards, none of those went on the board in the first period, All the Knights' offense in that opening quarter came via 150 yards throwing by Gabriel (he hit nine of 11 in those initial 15 minutes).
Meanwhile the UCF defense was putting the clamps on a potent Houston offense, including quarterback Clayton Tune who was seeking a fourth consecutive 300-yard passing day (he finished with 262).
The Knights forced punts on three of Houston's first four drives—and the fourth ended in an Eriq Gilyard interception. The Cougars' longest first-half possession lasted 57 yards and finished with a missed field goal. The 23-7 halftime lead did not really reflect how dominant the UCF offense had been in the opening 30 minutes: drives of 63, 78, 70, 89 and 59 yards. That's actually fairly routine for Heupel's attack.
The second half started about the same as the first—except this time it was a 45-yard Otis Anderson run on the opening play after intermission. That set the stage for a UCF run game that accounted for 108 yards in the third period and an amazing 131 in the fourth.
UCF ran the ball 28 times after intermission and needed only four pass completions.
The Knights to start the second half again forced punts on three of the first four Cougar drives—with Richie Grant providing the interception on the fourth.
By the time Houston scored its second offensive TD with about four minutes to go, the Knights were cruising at 37-13.
UCF's rushing total marked a season high (almost 100 yards more than in any other 2020 outing), and Anderson's 170 ground yards qualified as a Knight season individual best. All that came against a Cougar team leading the league in rushing defense.
Robinson had another 100-yard receiving day with five grabs for 107, Marlon Williams added five more for 87 and Texas product Ryan O'Keefe had a pair of receiving scores among his 97 yards.
Gabriel added to his nation-leading TD pass total (21) with a pair and extended his streak of passes without an interception to 166.
But it was on defense that the Knights made their statement,
Defensive back Derek Gainous accounted for a career-high nine tackles, and
linebacker Tatum Bethune's eight made another significant impact. For both players it marked only their second career starting assignments.
UCF added three sacks, broke up eight passes and hurried Tune on six plays.
For 60 minutes, the Knights looked as impressive in pass coverage as they have any time in 2020. Houston's longest gain of the day was only 32 yards.
"Defense, best effort of the season," Heupel said in the postgame locker room. "A bunch of young guys got their opportunities, played their butts off, played hard, played for one another.
"The best part of today was the energy from the moment you woke up. That's who we have got to be."
With another open date ahead, the Knights have some extra time to tune up for their final three regular-season outings—home games versus Temple and then unbeaten Cincinnati (Nov. 21), ahead of the trip down I-4 to meet rival USF the day after Thanksgiving.
If nothing else, Heupel and his Knights know that they are capable of a more varied recipe than maybe UCF fans had expected.