UCF football is in the midst of facing its toughest stretch of the season during what may be its toughest time in the season.
When the Knights (0-7, 0-3 American Athletic Conference) host No. 21 Houston (6-0, 3-0 AAC) Saturday at noon during Homecoming, it will mark back-to-back weekends against undefeated teams.
“Anytime you’re 0-7, there’s a challenge keeping everybody motivated, not just the players,” head coach George O’Leary said. “[That’s why] I deal with one game at a time: 12 one-game seasons and we have the eighth season coming up.”
Although UCF fared fairly well against Temple (6-0, 3-0 AAC) last weekend, leading 16-14 going into the fourth quarter, it couldn’t quite pull out an upset over the Owls, ultimately falling 30-16.
“Defensively, for three and a half quarters [they] played better than they have played [all season],” O’Leary said. “[They] tackled well, gave up a couple of big plays in that first series, but other than that they held pretty much Temple in check.”
The Knights’ defense will have to find a way to grind it out for four quarters if it wants to upset the Cougars’ potent offense.
Led by junior quarterback Greg Ward Jr., Houston’s No. 5-ranked offense in the nation averages 554.7 yards and 45.7 points per game. That may seem worlds away from UCF’s last-ranked 254.4 yards per game and second-to-last-ranked 15.7 points per game.
The key to the matchup may lie in containing Ward, who leads all FBS quarterbacks in rushing yards with 631 and is tied for tops in the nation with LSU’s Leonard Fournette with 14 rushing touchdowns.
“You’ve got to really play responsible football with somebody like him, a running back and a quarterback,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Thomas Niles said. “He can run the ball just as good or better, in his case better, than anybody on this team.
“He can break containment just as good as he can cut back.”
But shutting down the run game may only be half the battle when dealing with the dual-threat quarterback. Ward is third in the nation with a 71.8 percent pass completion rate, averaging 13.03 yards per completion.
“We just have to study our tendencies, look at film, see what he likes to do, see what aggravates him, see what he does and just try to put a good game plan together and go out there and compete,” senior middle linebacker Domenic Spencer said.
But if the Knights can find a way to dig deep, all signs are in place for an upset.
UCF holds a 5-1 all-time advantage over Houston. The Knights have won all four games played in Orlando, and each just so happened to be a homecoming game.
UCF was 5-4 when it upset No. 13 Houston at Bright House Networks Stadium in 2009, 37-32, and O’Leary has made that game known to the team.
“We always watch our special teams film on that,” Spencer said. “If we just listen to coach O’Leary, listen to our coaches, work on our assignments and just finish to the ball, we are capable to be a great defense.”
Jarrod Heil is the Sports Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow him on Twitter at @JarrodHeil or email him at JarrodH@CentralFloridaFuture.com.