UCF’s defense has had its fair share of run-ins with Houston. The last two games the Knights faced off against the Cougars, both hinged on late-game defensive plays.
In 2013, safety Brandon Alexander defended a pass to the end zone with 20 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. In 2014, Alexander made another game-saving play by forcing a fumble on the Knights’ own 1-yard line with 25 seconds to go. The Knights won each game.
UCF’s defense is a far cry from what it was in its past two American-Athletic-Conference-championship-winning teams. From youth to injuries, the Knights have seen a near overhaul on the defensive side of the ball.
Despite an 0-7 start, the Knights’ defense is showing improvement.
“After that [Temple] game, [Houston’s] expecting a lot more from the defense because I feel like we made a big change from how we’ve been playing this whole season,” junior cornerback Shaquill Griffin said. “We started fast, we just got to keep playing fast and we’re going to try and do that for the whole season; no matter what team we play.”
Griffin recorded the Knights’ first interception of the season with his 81-yard pick-six interception – the first defensive score since 2012.
“I feel like, now, everyone’s catching on,” sophomore defensive tackle Jamiyus Pittman said. “We’re giving better effort because we feel like we’re getting closer to a win.”
Pittman led the Knights’ defensive line with four tackles.
Despite becoming bowl ineligible after the loss to Temple, UCF’s focus remains on winning that elusive first game.
“We weren’t worried about a bowl,” redshirt junior linebacker Maurice Russell said. “We just want to get better every day.”
Russell was second in tackles against Temple with nine.
The Knights also saw significant contribution from Iowa-State transfer, junior safety T.J. Mutcherson. He had mostly seen time on special teams in the five games prior to Temple. He recorded seven tackles and two fumble recoveries.
“I thought T.J. Mutcherson went out and played very well,” head coach George O’Leary said. “I was happy to see that. I think the changes made worked out very well. … I thought the secondary improved.”
Junior cornerback D.J. Killings led all tacklers with 10 and is second in tackles on the team with 44 this season.
The Knights play Houston on Homecoming Saturday at noon for the second time in three years.
Victor Ng is a Senior Staff Writer for the Central Florida Future. Follow him on Twitter at @_victorT24.