When the UCF defense is defending the red zone is when the dog comes out. Backed up, just footsteps separating the opposing offense from reaching the goal line — often times with the game hanging in the balance — the unit is at its best. In the territory where one missed tackle, one false step or one bad read likely leads to points, the Knights have proven to be a force where it matters most.
Some of UCF's biggest plays this season have come within scoring range. Jacoby Glenn broke up a pass to seal the victory against BYU. Brandon Alexander jarred the ball loose as Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. dove toward the goal line late in the fourth quarter.
"We're a scrappy bunch of guys," senior linebacker Troy Gray said, "and when you have your back up against the wall it's like a dog in a fight; you have your back up against the wall, you come out fighting."
Twenty-six times an opponent has entered the red zone against UCF this season, and nine times the offense has walked away with six points. As the nation's eighth-best red zone defense, UCF allows opponents to score just 70 percent of trips inside the 20-yard line.
As the Knights prepare to travel to face UConn Saturday at noon — cold and rainy weather could join them up north — scoring could be at a premium. Having a sturdy presence near the end zone can only help the Knights, who have proven to be inconsistent offensively and have shown flashes of struggling on special teams.
While football is an intense game, when points are on the line everything is ramped up an extra notch.
"I see it in their eyes — it's warrior-like," senior defensive tackle Jaryl Mamea said. "If someone comes into your house and they are about to take something from you, we all have that mentality that they won't take it from us. That red zone is our home, you can't destroy it."
Added Gray, "I think as a defense that is one of the things we harp on, is making sure we defend our home."
Hyperbole aside, UCF has proven to be one of the nation's elite defenses. After another strong performance against Temple Saturday, UCF jumped to No. 10 in total defense, No. 17 in scoring defense and No. 26 in turnovers forced.
UCF head coach George O'Leary has noticed the obvious growth in his defense, especially since its early-season struggles.
"They really enjoy playing football, I enjoy them," O'Leary said. "On the field you see them celebrating with each other and not running to a corner looking to the stands, they celebrate with each other and they are great teammates."
Strong red zone defense has become a staple of this unit — much of which is intact from last season's No. 13 red zone defense. The Knights represent the true meaning of the classic football-ism "bend, but don't break defense." UCF sits 79th in third down defense despite its successes guarding the end zone.
Clearly something changes in the red zone.
"I think it comes with attitude," sophomore Jacoby Glenn said. "We practice good in the red zone."
That attitude is one thing that the UCF defense appears to have invested in.
"They don't care where the ball is, [they just say] let's go play," O'Leary said. "Put the ball down and let's go."
Total defense 10
Rushing defense 17
Team passing efficiency defense 16
Scoring defense 14
Red zone defense 8