What a difference that one year has made for the UCF football program.
Heading into their 10th game of the 2015 season, the Knights were 0-9 and on their way to a winless 0-12 season. As UCF (5-4 overall, 3-2 American) plays its 10th game of the 2016 season Saturday, it has a chance to clinch bowl eligibility with a win over Cincinnati (4-5 overall, 1-4 American).
Erik Chinander’s defense dominated last Saturday, by leading UCF to a 37-6 rout of Tulane. The Knights scored three defensive touchdowns, all in the second half, to pull away from the Green Wave after leading just 7-6 at halftime.
Senior safety Drico Johnson scored two of the defense’s touchdowns, first stealing an option pitch and taking it back 30 yards to put UCF up 13-6. With Tulane threatening in UCF territory later in the game, he intercepted a Glen Cuiellette pass and took it back 86 yards to give the Knights a 30-6 lead.
Defense has been at the center of the Knights’ 2016 turnaround. Heading into play this week, the UCF defensive unit is ranked 12th in the nation with 12 interceptions, while also ranking ninth in the nation in red zone defense. Cincinnati is ranked third in the nation with 15 interceptions, but ranks below UCF at 23rd in red zone defense.
UCF’s Griffin twins will look to continue their strong seasons this week with big performances against a struggling Cincinnati offense. Shaquem, a redshirt junior linebacker, currently leads the AAC in sacks with eight and a half, which is also good for 11th in the country. Shaquill, a senior defensive back, leads the conference in passes defended with 13. That mark ranks seventh in the nation.
The Knights’ offense was inconsistent last week, putting up just 17 points and 297 yards. Freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton struggled to get going, completing just 45 percent of his passes for 85 yards. He threw one interception, but also found the end zone on the ground to put UCF up 7-6 in the second quarter. Senior Justin Holman took over late in the game, leading the team 80 yards down the field for a touchdown. However, head coach Scott Frost said that he will be sticking with Milton going forward.
Milton’s job won’t get much easier this week, but he should get some help from his talented backfield. The Bearcat defense has allowed an average of 182.4 rushing yards per game this season, which will likely translate to a heavy dose of running from the Knights. Senior running back Dontravious Wilson leads the team with 403 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, but freshmen Jawon Hamilton (334 yards, two touchdowns) and Adrian Killins (310 yards, three touchdowns) have dazzled throughout their first nine collegiate games.
Saturday will be just the second meeting between these two programs. Last season, Cincinnati put up 726 yards on its way to a 52-7 win over UCF. Not only would a win this week give the Knights bowl eligibility, but it would also clinch at least a .500 record in conference play.
For updates throughout the game, you can follow @Evan_Abramson or @CFF_Sports on Twitter.