Time for Knights’ defense to crank up the pressure
Published: Sunday, October 23, 2011
Updated: Sunday, October 23, 2011 20:10
Something had to give.
For most of the first half of the season, the Knights (3-4, 1-2) were anchored by their defense.
Even when they lost consecutive games to FIU and BYU, it was largely agreed upon that special teams blunders and maybe some offensive struggles were to blame.
But it certainly wasn't the defense.
Until now, that is.
First it was the high-flying SMU Mustangs offense that picked apart the UCF secondary to the tune of 358 passing yards and two passing touchdowns.
But, at the time, it probably just seemed like a letdown game for a defensive unit that, to some extent, was probably sick and tired of being the only unit on the team running on all cylinders.
Surely, against lowly UAB (1-6, 1-3), the Knights would bounce back like a top-10 defense in the nation ought to.
Well, 501 yards later, we found out that wasn't the case. And a Knights team that badly needed a win to regain momentum and make a play at the Conference USA East Division crown, instead suffered a demoralizing 26-24 loss to a previously winless Blazers team.
"That's as sloppy a defense as I've ever seen," coach George O'Leary said in a release. "We're just doing things you can't do and expect to win."
For those keeping score at home, that was nearly a yard for every person in attendance at archaic Legion Field on Thursday night.
The Blazers probably could not have cared less if anyone was there, though, as the cavernous stadium ended up the site for the team's first and, in all likelihood, biggest win of the season.
So what's changed in a defense that mere weeks ago was talked about among the best in the country? What are the Knights doing differently?
In a lot of ways, nothing.
Specifically, nothing is happening on the defensive line, and that's the problem.
Anchored last season by Bruce Miller, the Knight's defensive line was something to be feared, constantly causing sacks and creating chaos for opposing quarterbacks. In 2010, UCF had 32 sacks in 14 games.
This season, that pass rush simply has not been there. Through seven games, the Knights have recorded only eight sacks and allowed twice as many.
Against SMU, the Knights did not register a sack. Against UAB, they had only one.
That lack of a pass rush is a big part of the growing success opposing offenses seem to be having against UCF. With seemingly all day to pass, it is getting easier and easier for quarterbacks to pick apart the Knights' secondary.
"We're not making any big plays as far as tackles for losses and sacks, and that usually adds to bad field position and allowing [big plays] to happen," O'Leary said after the loss to SMU.
O'Leary said there is a lot of potential on his defensive line, though, and that the big difference maker for UCF going forward will be sustained efforts on the pass rush.
"We got to be more active with our linemen. …I think we've been a little bit stagnant," O'Leary said. "I think we've got a lot of speed on the defensive front, and we need to utilize it. …When you look at when we're a good sack team, which is usually every year, we have great, great second effort players."
That persistence to shed blocks on the second move could very well be one of the most important areas of improvement for the Knights going forward.
UCF can even jump up at .500 this week with a win over lowly Memphis (2-6, 1-1). Despite dropping four of their last five games, the Knights still largely control their own destiny, with dates with division leaders Southern Miss and East Carolina looming.
At this point, the Knights' season can still be salvaged, although the sky-high expectations from August and early September are long, long gone.
But if the Knights allow USM's Austin Davis and ECU's Dominique Davis, among others, to have all day to pass and pick apart their secondary, they won't find themselves fighting for a spot in the conference title game.
They may instead find themselves fighting to simply be bowl eligible.