Saturday, Sept. 81
Noon ET, ESPN2
Ohio Stadium; Columbus, Ohio
The Golden Knights
Head coach: George O'Leary, 51-51, ninth year (103-84 overall, 16 years)
2011 record: 5-7 (3-5 Conference USA East Division, tied for fourth place)
Series mark: First meeting
School location: Orlando, Fla.
Colors: Black and Gold
Stadium: Bright House Network Stadium
Fight song: "UCF Fight Song"
Game Notes, including depth chart on page 8
Central Florida is coming off a 5-7 year, but that doesn't mean there isn't reason to respect the talent the Knights will bring into Ohio Stadium.
After an 0-11 season his first year of 2004, head coach George O'Leary quickly built the Knights into a 10-win squad in 2007. In 2010, UCF was even better, going 11-3 and beating Georgia in the Liberty Bowl.
The team fell to a 5-7 record last year, but heads were turned when noted college football prognosticator Phil Steele picked UCF to finished 15th in the nation this year. Steele also has the Knights as his top team from outside the big six automatic BCS qualifying conferences and his No. 1 most improved team from a year ago (Ohio State is listed as No. 2 in that regard).
Steele reasoned that UCF is bound to bounce back after six of its seven losses were by seven points or less. The Knights also return 16 starters and heavily outgained opponents a season ago.
Before the season, O'Leary was confident his program was at the point that it was going to post a season more like 2010 than '11.
"This is the first year since I've been here that the two-deep is already pretty well set (before fall camp)," the former Georgia Tech head coach said. "We want it to be a competitive two-deep where you can put all of those guys in and sustain the game. I'm very comfortable, more than ever, now that we have more people who can get on the field and not have a major falloff from the first game."
That experience and talent was obvious in the team's opener, a 56-14 drubbing at Akron. The Zips are one of the worst teams at the Division I level, it appears, after consecutive one-win seasons, but the Knights get credit for going to the Rubber City and taking care of business.
With Ohio State on the docket, the Knights have turned their attention to trying to grab a win that would make the country take notice. In addition, with a potential bowl ban on the horizon – the team has received the ban for third-party interference in their recruiting tactics but has appealed the decision – this could be the squad's biggest chance to make a splash this year.
"It's a great opportunity for this program," O'Leary said. "I think the big thing is, I like playing games against traditional schools like Ohio State. They have a great, long history of winning, a great tradition as far as the program is concerned. They recruit extremely well. Urban has just taken over, but I think Jim Tressel was no slouch in recruiting. He brought good players into that program.
"We go into every game with an opportunity to win it. That's what I told our players at the beginning of the season is that we expect to play 14 games this year, and I expect to go into each game with the opportunity to win it. We have to perform to get that done."
In A Nutshell
The warning signs are there: UCF presents a good challenge for Ohio State. In addition to Steele's lofty preseason ranking, the Knights were picked to win the East Division of Conference USA, and the team has received votes in the preseason and post-first-week polls.
There might be a picture out there that the Knights will be some sort of throw-happy, gimmicky team like many others from outside the BCS leagues that pop up and cause havoc every once in a while, but that's not the case at all. The strength of UCF's team is on the ground on both sides of the ball, as the team has a deep group of running backs to complement one of the best rush defenses in the country, statistically, the past few seasons.
But that depth on offense took a hit when senior running back Latavius Murray suffered a banged up shoulder in the Akron game, and he's not expected to play vs. the Buckeyes. The team still has depth at that position, though, as former Miami Hurricane Storm Johnson moves up to the starting lineup and Brynn Harvey becomes the No. 2 option. Johnson is a good combination of size and speed while Harvey ran for 1,000 yards and was an all-league pick in 2009.
The triggerman is Blake Bortles, one of the best quarterbacks in Seminole County history coming out of high school. He then played in 10 games last year, completing 68.2 percent of his passes, before inheriting the starting job this year, and he was 13 for 16 with three TD passes against the Zips.
The targets out wide are varied but there doesn't appear to be a true go-to guy. Sophomores J.J. Worton and Josh Reese were standouts a year ago as freshmen but neither had a catch in the opener. Quincy McDuffie is a multipurpose senior but doesn't have good size. Sophomore Rannell Hall is more dangerous as a kick return man but had two touchdown catches vs. Akron – including a 56-yarder – while Jeff Godfrey was the team's starting QB the past few years and is quite athletic.
Up front, center Jordan Rae and left guard Theo Goins are veterans who are on national preseason watch lists, while the right guard/right tackle duo of Jordan and Justin McCray are twins starting next to one another. The left tackle, Torrian Wilson, started five games last year as a freshman.
UCF topped 400 yards per game last year, but turnovers and red-zone struggles hurt immensely when it came to putting points on the board. Those two areas were much improved against the Zips.
Defensively, the UCF numbers are solid. In fact, the Knights are the only team in the nation to have led its conference in rushing defense each of the past four years, and UCF joins Alabama as the only schools to finish in the top 20 of Division I-A in that stat each of the last three years.
In all, UCF was excellent across the board last year. The Knights placed eighth in passing efficiency defense (110.53), ninth in total defense (303.3 yards allowed), ninth in scoring (18.3 points) and 16th in rush defense (108.8 yards). The last three of those marks led C-USA, as did the team's 194.5 passing yards allowed per game. The Knights also kept opponents to a third-down percentage of 31.6 percent last year, ninth in the country.
The only place the team needed to improve is in turnovers, where UCF forced only 15 last year, but the squad did just that when it forced four out of Akron.
There aren't any statistical standouts on defense, but there is a group of solid players. The squad likes its ends, as Victor Gray is a converted tackle who is a preseason C-USA first-team choice and Troy Davis leads all returning players with 10½ sacks. In the middle, massive tackle Jose Jose and E.J. Dunston are emerging players. Freshman Deion Green adds pass-rushing thrust from the edge.
The linebackers have fit in nicely to the defense. Jonathan Davis is proficient in getting in the backfield while former Florida basketball player Ray Shipman plays on the other side; he adds size and is improving each week with more experience. The middle man is new, though, in Terrance Plummer.
Safety Kemal Ishmael is a fourth-year contributor who always seems to be around big plays. He had 81 tackles to lead the team last year, 14 more than fellow returning starter Clayton Geathers. Cornerbacks A.J. Bouye and Jordan Ozerities are talented players who have been sidelines by injuries in the past.
The team must replace its kicker and punter but there are no major issues to report with the special teams. Hall is one of the top kickoff return men in the country – he averaged 31.0 yards per try last year as a freshman.
Possible Ohio State edges: It does look like the Buckeyes will have the answer against UCF's strengths. The Knights boast an excellent run defense, but Ohio State showed a week ago it should have a formidable run game in Meyer's offense. On the other side of the ball, UCF's attack should be hurt if Murray is unable to play, as expected. The Knights also have a good kickoff return man, but Drew Basil was excellent with his kickoffs against the RedHawks.
Possible UCF edges:Central Florida will hope to be able to pound the ball at Ohio State to see how the team's linebackers fare; that was a position of question heading into the season. That could open up the possibility of play-action pass, as well, something OSU didn't have to worry about against Miami. Defensively, the Knights' veteran secondary could be well-suited to man up against OSU's young wideouts.
Each week, we'll endeavor to ask five questions of an opposing team expert to try to bring some unique insight into that squad. This week, Eric Py of KnightNews.com joins us.
What kind of offensive attack do the Knights present? How does it take advantage of the skills of QB Blake Bortles?
The offensive attack presented by the Knights is a traditional play-action, downhill running and pocket passing style. While you can expect to see some unconventional play against the Buckeyes (i.e., the Wild Knight) the Knights focus on a rotation of talented running backs to stay fresh and a very accurate and strong arm from Blake Bortles to a gang of receivers and tight ends.
It sounds like Latavius Murray won't be able to go because of his injury. What do running backs Storm Johnson and Brynn Harvey bring to the table?
Latavius will be missed for his reliability and size, but Harvey and Johnson both bring formidable techniques. Storm Johnson is an elusive, crafty and hard to bring down back with impressive breakout speed. He can turn a little bit of daylight into a big gain. Harvey is a powerful back who hits the hole hard, can put down a few moves but will very much focus on north and south running.
How does UCF's offensive line look this season?
The offensive line is young but talented. While their size is not the like the behemoths the Big Ten consistently puts on the line, they are skilled, young, ambitious and definitely not small.
What stands out about the Knights' defense, especially the rush defense, which has been good for a few years now?
The Knights defense obviously is stronger against the run than the pass, inexperience mostly being the reason. The primary leaders on the defense such as Troy Davis and Victor Gray are on the front line and are very focused and poised to continue their run game dominance. Also Jose Jose is the size of a fridge at 6-2, 355 pounds.
The Knights have gotten some respect by pollsters around the country, notably Phil Steele. Do you get the sense the team itself thinks it has the team to live up to that billing this year?
The UCF trend is that they perform well when underdogs and tend to waiver as soon as they garnish national attention. This seems to be fairly well established in the sports world and therefore it seems like very few analysts give UCF too much praise for fearing the team won't follow through (see last seasons expectations and results). This year is much different than last year however in terms of team confidence. We have a quarterback who wants to play the position, twin brothers on the O-line, and a defense with no shortage of leaders to dole out accountability. The team seems more fired up, more focused and they have the attitude that if they go out and do their thing, play to their ability, there's no reason they cannot win every game on the schedule, even against a Big Ten, consistently contending team backed by 102,000 of their closest friends.
Aug. 30: at Akron, W 56-14. UCF forced four turnovers and led 35-0 at halftime thanks to 28 second-quarter points.
Five Fast Facts
1. This is not the first time UCF will have traveled to Ohio to play games in consecutive weeks. When the Knights were in the Mid-American Conference, they played at Ohio on Oct. 11, 2003, before traveling to play Akron seven days later.
2. The Knights have only one victory in their history on the road against a ranked team. That came in 2009 when the Knights knocked off No. 13 Houston. The Knights have never won at a nonconference ranked foe. UCF did not have a road victory a season ago but start this season with the victory at Akron.
3. UCF will join the Big East next season along with SMU, Houston, Memphis, Boise State and San Diego State. The Big East is also adding Navy in 2015 but lost West Virginia to the Big 12 this season and will see Syracuse and Pittsburgh head to the ACC next year.
4. Unlike last week, when Ohio State faced a solid Miami program that's in the top 25 in all-time wins, UCF is a relative newcomer on the college football stage. The 2012 campaign marks the 34th season of UCF football and the 17th at the FBS level.
5. The last time UCF faced a Big Ten team was in 2004 at Penn State, and the Nittany Lions emerged with a 37-13 win. A total of 103,029 fans attended that game, the most for a game in program history, which should be passed Saturday vs. Ohio State. The Knights are 0-6 all-time vs. schools currently in the Big Ten.
Last Time Out
It is the first meeting between the teams.
The last time the Buckeyes took on a team from Conference USA, it was a good day for the Scarlet and Gray. Ohio State lifted the lid on the 2010 season with a 45-7 drubbing of Marshall on a Thursday night in Ohio Stadium.
The Buckeyes opened their season on a weekday night for the first time since 1997 when they took a 24-10 victory over Wyoming. It also marked the first nighttime opener at the Horseshoe since a 28-9 OSU win over Washington in 2003.
The fireworks exploded early and often as the Buckeyes tallied a trio of first-quarter touchdowns, two on passes by quarterback Terrelle Pryor. The junior signal caller finished his evening's work with an efficient 17-for-25 performance passing for 247 yards and three touchdowns.
"I thought Terrelle did some real good things tonight," OSU head coach Jim Tressel said. "I thought he had confidence in where he was going with the ball and I thought his command and anticipation were pretty darn good."
Pryor led an Ohio State attack that accounted for 529 total yards and featured an excellent balance of running and passing. Senior co-captain Brandon Saine led all rushers with 103 yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries as the Buckeyes netted 280 yards on the ground.
Redshirt freshman Jaamal Berry added 80 yards on seven second-half carries, and senior Dan "Boom" Herron chipped in with 44 yards on seven carries.
Nine different receivers caught at least one pass for the Buckeyes and four grabbed at least three. Junior DeVier Posey led the way with four catches for 41 yards and two scores while senior Dane Sanzenbacher made the most of his three catches, turning them into 113 yards and a touchdown.
Sophomore tight end Jake Stoneburner and senior receiver Grant Schwartz had three receptions each, good for 41 and 20 yards respectively.
Meanwhile, Marshall struggled for every yard and finished with 199 total.
The win was later vacated because of the sanctions to hit the program following the season.
There are also some ties between Ohio State's Meyer and UCF's O'Leary. In 1999, O'Leary's Georgia Tech team faced Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. Meyer was on that Irish staff as an assistant, but Georgia Tech posted a 35-28 victory.
The coaches have met as head coaches once before. That was during Florida's 2006 national title campaign, and Meyer's Gators blanked the Knights by a 42-0 score.