(Photo by Adrian J. Hernandez / New Day Review)
ORLANDO, Fla. – The University of Central Florida (3-0, 1-0 in American Athletic Conference) will have its first conference road game of the season when the Knights travel to the University of Cincinnati to take on the Bearcats (2-3, 0-1 in AAC).
UCF is coming off a 40-13 victory over the Memphis Tigers in its first conference game of the season, as the Knights are now ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 2013. In that season, the Knights won the 2014 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, UCF’s first and only BCS bowl.
While this will be UCF’s first game as a ranked team this season, Cincinnati is no stranger to the ranked opposition. In Week 2, the Bearcats traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and lost to the Michigan Wolverines 36-14.
Cincinnati hasn’t found its step yet, going 2-2 in non-conference play. The Bearcats’ victories come in the forms of a 26-14 win over Austin Peay State University and a 21-17 victory over Miami University. Their losses are to Michigan and Marshall University.
Cincinnati’s lone AAC game was a 42-32 loss on the road to the Navy Midshipmen in Week 4. So, not only will this be UCF’s first conference road game, but it will also be Cincinnati’s first conference game at home.
Here’s what to expect when the No. 25 Knights travel to Cincinnati to take on the Bearcats at Nippert Stadium.
Cincinnat Is Led by 1st-year Head Coach Luke Fickell
Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell is in his first year as the head guy for a program; however, that doesn’t necessarily mean he hasn’t had head-coaching experience before.
Fickell coached at Ohio State University from 2002 to 2016. In 2005, Fickell was promoted to co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. In 2011, Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel would resign amid an NCAA investigation. Fickell would be promoted to interim head coach for the season, going 6-7 with a loss to the University of Florida in the 2012 Gator Bowl. Fickell would then go back to his role as co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach until his departure.
“Yeah, you know, we went through it last year with it being our first year, and it takes a while [to get going],” second-year Knights head coach Scott Frost said at his team’s game-week presser on Oct. 2. “You can see it starting to come with [Cincinnati]. They’re playing disciplined. They’re sound. You can see [Fickell’s] marks start to be made on that football team, and, inevitably, the results are gonna fall after that, so I have a lot of respect for that program and their coaching staff.”
UCF’s staunch defense allows the 22nd-fewest yards per game (309.3) and allows the seventh-fewest points per game (13.3). That will prove to be a significant challenge for a Bearcats offense that ranks 107th in scoring (22.8 points per game) and 116th in yards per game (319.4).
Cincinnati, perhaps, has its best weapon in wide receiver Kahlil Lewis. The junior from Miami, Florida, has 24 catches for 245 yards and four touchdowns this season. Lewis’ four touchdowns makes him response for 28.5 percent of Cincinnati’s offensive touchdowns this season.
“You know, I really like their quarterback, [Hayden Moore]. I think he can really throw that thing,” UCF defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said after practice on Oct. 3. “I know No. 1 is a Florida kid, Lewis. And he’s a really nice receiver. They have some big running-backs that can run you over. And I think they got a lot of nice things in their offense.
“They got a lot of stuff. Stuff we haven’t prepared for. Because their staff is new. So, it’s like playing a whole new team, which is not always the best. You’d like to have about a year where you kinda know them and all that kinda stuff. So, I think it’s gonna be the combination of good players and a brand-new system we have to get ready for.”
Knights Have Opportunity to Score a Lot of Points Against Cincinnati
The Bearcats defense is 89th in points allowed per game, giving up 29.4 points per game. It’ll have a significant challenge in a UCF offense that has averaged scored 46.3 points per game, seventh-most so far this season. The Bearcats are significantly weaker in their run defense, as they’ve allowed the ninth-most rushing yards per game (237.8) so far this season. Cincinnati’s pass defense is significantly more respectable, ranking 20th in the nation and allowing just 163.4 passing yards per game. Knights quarterback McKenzie Milton is averaging 263.7 passing yards per game, throwing for eight touchdowns in the process.
Getting pressure to the quarterback has also been an issue for Cincinnati. In five games, Cincinnati has recorded just five sacks, tied for 22nd-fewest. UCF’s O-line has yet to allow a sack on Milton this season.
“You know, we’re running the same plays as we did FIU. It’s just, you know, we’re more aggressive,” UCF offensive coordinator and wide-receivers coach Troy Walters said after practice on Oct. 3. “I think the guys, after that first game, we learned from our mistakes. We knew we had to be more physical. We knew we had to finish blocks. So I think the guys understand that… We can still improve and get better, but the guys understand that if we can get the run game going, it opens up everything else in this offense.”
Cincinnati’s Best Performance Was at Michigan
Cincinnati’s best performance so far this season, perhaps, came against the then-No. 8 Wolverines in Week 2. Against Michigan, Cincinnati trailed by as little as three points with just over three minutes to go in the third quarter. The Bearcats’ defense even managed well against the Wolverines, holding Michigan to just 414 total yards (221 passing, 193 rushing). Michigan ultimately pulled away with a 12-0 fourth quarter.
Now, the Bearcats will host their first conference game of 2017 against their second ranked opponent of the season: UCF.
Kickoff between No. 25 UCF and the Bearcats is at 8 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.
For more on the Knights, as they prepare for their first conference road test of the season, follow Ryan Weiss on Twitter at @NDR_RyanWeiss.