ECU Football

Senior tight end Anthony Watley runs with the ball against William and Mary.

The East Carolina University (3-3, 0-2 AAC) football team will continue conference play on Saturday when it travels to Orlando, Florida to face the University of Central Florida (4-2, 1-1 AAC).

Meeting for the 18th time since 1991, Saturday night’s game will pit two statistically opposed programs against each other. While the Pirates have won 10 of the 17 previous contests, the Knights rank as one of the best offensive teams in the country this season.

Picked to win the American conference during the preseason, UCF has picked up right where it left off in 2018. After riding a powerful offense to an undefeated regular season, the Knights will enter Saturday’s contest with the fifth best scoring offense in the country, averaging 44.8 points per game.

“They’ve got weapons at every skill position on offense,” head coach Mike Houston said. “The offensive line returns three all-conference players this year along with two other experienced players. The backfield, they’re going to play multiple backs, all of them have home run capabilities. So, we’ve got to do a good job of defending their scheme and deciding what we want to take away and how we want to try to take it away.”

Through the first half of 2019, the Knights have averaged better than 544 yards per contest and have posted at least 423 yards against every team they have faced this season. That statistic ranks UCF third in the country, while its 329.5 passing yards per game is eighth best in the FBS.

At the center of the Knights’ passing attack is freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel. Despite his lack of collegiate experience, Gabriel is thriving in an offensive scheme that loves to air out the football. In his first six games at the FBS level, Gabriel has already racked up 15 touchdowns (10th in the FBS) and 1,635 passing yards, equating to better than 270 yards per contest.

With numbers like that, it is not surprising to learn that the Knights are one of the best big-play offenses in the country. At this point in the season, UCF has already racked up 46 plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or more, ranking them second in the nation. Over 25% of those explosive plays have came from one person, junior wide receiver Gabriel Davis.

On the receiving end of 38 of Gabriel’s 99 completed passes this season, Davis paces the Knights’ offense in catches, yards (669) and touchdowns (eight) while averaging a lofty 111.5 receiving yards per contest.

“The biggest thing we’ve got to do, at least initially, is match their tempo,” Houston said. “We’ve got to do a great job of getting the call, getting lined up, playing together and then doing a great job of doing our job. It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s a challenge for everybody. We’ve just got to have a great week of preparation.”

As Houston mentions, the Knights have one of the most up-tempo offenses in the country. At times snapping the ball before the referees are set, UCF has a knack for catching defenses unprepared.

A quick look at the Knights’ statistic sheet, however, reveals they have only ran 10 more plays than their opponents this season, 466 to 456. The difference, unfortunately for opposing defenses, resides in the average yards gained per play. Currently, UCF is averaging seven yards per snap while at the same time holding opponents to 4.3 yards per play.

On the back of their talented skill position players, the Knights have developed an offense that has learned to score quickly. Of their 41 scoring drives this season, 33 have been completed in under three minutes, 25 under two minutes and 13 under one minute. In fact, offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby’s offense has yet to sustain a scoring drive longer than 3:55 this season.

“They’re snapping the ball every eight to nine seconds,” Houston said. “There are some things that we’re going to do this week to try to simulate that. We’re going to do some stuff against our offense. Our offense can play pretty fast when it needs to as well. Then there’s some things you can do with your scout teams to give a little bit of a quicker play rep than normal.”

Defensively, the Knights are deep enough to keep fresh players rotated in regularly, making it tough for opposing offenses to gain an advantage. In total, 43 different UCF defenders have booked a tackle this season, while 22 have logged at least one tackle for loss. As a team, the Knights rank fourth in the FBS with 8.8 tackles for loss per game and have held opposing programs to a 27.5% conversion rate on third down.

Leading the way on the back-end for the Knights is redshirt senior cornerback Nevelle Clarke. Already with nine pass break-ups this season, Clarke finds himself ranked eighth in the nation with 1.7 passes defended per contest and accounts for almost a quarter of UCF’s swatted passes this season.

In all, UCF’s defense is a top-35 unit in total defense, allowing 327.5 yards per game, and scoring defense by holding opponents to an average of 20.7 points per match-up.

“I think they’re probably the best team that we’ve played to this point,” Houston said.

Tasked with slowing down UCF’s offensive attack on Saturday is a Pirate defense that has been slowing progressing this season. Despite only meddling numbers in both pass and rush defense, ECU’s defensive unit has yielded only four passing touchdowns in 2019, its lowest total allowed through six games over the last 20 years. Additionally, opposing offenses have managed just 1,208 (201.3 yards per game) passing yards against the Pirates’ defense, ranking the unit 40th in the nation in that category.

Free off a bye week, the Pirates will be playing with a slightly adjusted depth chart. Still without junior running back Darius Pinnix Jr., coach Houston and his staff has tabbed freshman running back Demetrius Mauney as the starter on Saturday.

“Just as we’ve seen in the past couple of games, you’re seeing more and more guys put themselves in a position to contribute on the field and that’s good for everybody,” Houston said. “We’re going to need that depth on Saturday night.”

Sophomore tight end Zech Byrd also worked his way to the top of ECU’s depth chart while senior Fernando Frye will make his third start this season, replacing the injured Cortez Herrin on the offensive line.

Perhaps the one upside to facing a team that scores quickly is the opportunity to possess the football more times than normal. Up until this point in the season, the Pirates’ offense has struggled to find consistently. Despite averaging 24.3 points in its four non-conference games, ECU has managed only 13.5 points in two games against AAC competition. Conversely, the Knights’ defense has limited opponents to just 16 points per game at home in 2019.

“I think the big key is having productive drives,” Houston said. “What we talked about as a staff, we don’t want to do things to beat ourselves and that’s in all three phases. But offensively, we don’t want to have the big negative plays. You don’t want to have the turnovers. You don’t want to have the quick three-and-outs. You want to have the productive drives.”

Scoring points in bunches and slowing down UCF’s up-tempo offense looks to be two very important factors in the Pirates’ success on Saturday. Tabbed to be 33.5-point underdogs on the road, however, it will take ECU’s defense playing to its potential to make an impact on the Knights’ explosive offense.

Kickoff between the Knights and Pirates in Orlando is slated for 7 p.m. on Saturday inside Spectrum Stadium.

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