UCF-Southern Miss: What To Watch
I'm pretty sure I'm in the majority when saying last week's win against the Samford Bulldogs was an underwhelming display on the part of the UCF Knights.
A game that was supposed to be a glorified exhibition turned into a four-point nail-biter, leaving fans wondering if this was going to set the tone for the rest of the season.
This week, the Knights travel to Hattiesburg, MS, to take on the Golden Eagles of Southern Miss. Here are some keys to the Saturday night matchup:
1) How will the secondary handle the spread?
While I can take shots about the youth and inexperience of the Knights' secondary, take away a trick play and a jump ball that resulted in a very impressive catch by Bulldogs wide receiver Riley Hawkins and the "bend, don't break" strategy was actually effective. The majority of Dustin Taliaferro's pass completions were in the five- to seven-yard range.
That was Samford, though.
Southern Miss head coach Larry Fedora has done a formidable job installing a spread offense that puts up a ton of points. Last season, the Golden Eagles had a receiving corps that included all-conference tight end Shawn Nelson and highly touted freshman wide receiver DeAndre Brown.
With Nelson in the NFL and Brown coming off a knee surgery, quarterback Austin Davis will definitely be spreading the ball around to the other capable receivers. This makes it a little more difficult to key in on one receiver.
It'll be up to Darin Baldwin and Co. to continue to contain the passing game and make the Southern Miss offense a one-dimensional attack.
2) Will the real front seven please stand up?
To say the pass rush was paltry against Samford would be an upgrade. One sack on a FCS team is disgusting for a team who returns starters all over the defensive line and linebacker corps.
This week, they also have to worry about one scary running back.
No matter who the receivers are for this team, make no mistake that the Golden Eagles' offense runs through all-conference running back Damion Fletcher.
Against FCS opponent Alcorn State, Fletcher put up 126 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Those numbers could have been much larger if not for the 52-0 thrashing, with the team removing starters by halftime.
If there was ever a week for the front seven to prove their worth, this is the perfect test. If the team holds Fletcher to under 100 yards, the Knights have a very good chance to be in this game.
3) Remove doubts at quarterback now!
I will admit after witnessing Rob Calabrese's "performance" against Samford, I was first to yell out for backup Brett Hodges.
After watching the replay and remembering a goal line fumble by receiver Rocky Ross as well as a few dropped passes by other receivers, it's not entirely fair to place blame solely on Calabrese.
Sure, he was errant with several throws, but he wasn't helped out by teammates NOT named Brynn Harvey.
If he wants to prove he's the man for the Knights, he has to do it now. The Golden Eagles defense held Alcorn State to just over 100 yards passing (yeah, let that sink in for a moment) and forced two interceptions.
I'm not saying he needs to put up 300 yards and four touchdowns, but he must be able to move the chains and show some sort of effectiveness to put to rest any grumblings of a quarterback controversy or a two-quarterback system. As the old saying goes: "If you're playing two quarterbacks, you don't have one."
Knights fans are holding onto to the hope that last week's performance was just a fluke.
UCF head coach George O'Leary said at this week's media teleconference that offensive coordinator Charlie Taafe played "close to the vest" with his play-calling and that this week it'll be opened up a bit more.
It's very basic: move the chains, don't commit stupid penalties and minimize mistakes, and the Knights can hang with any team in Conference USA.
This game will come down to who can make that last drive count in the fourth quarter. Let's just hope we see a much more effective Knights team this Saturday.
Prediction: Southern Miss - 34, UCF - 24
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