KICKOFF SET FOR 3:30 P.M.
ORLANDO, FLORIDA – The Knights’ all-conference quarterback will not be there. Dillon Gabriel, who led the nation in passing a year ago, is out indefinitely with a fractured clavicle.
A number of other UCF starters were injured during the loss to Louisville on Sept. 17.
So who will step up when this Saturday when the Knights take on the Navy in their first American Athletic Conference contest of the 2021 season?
Here are some of the factors at play for UCF (2-1, 0-0 AAC) when the Knights take on the Midshipmen (0-3, 0-1 AAC) Saturday at 3:30 p.m. on CBS Sports Network and FM 96.9 The Game:
■ Mikey’s the man. True freshman Mikey Keene arrived at UCF as an early enrollee in January and impressed the coaching staff immediately.
Through spring practice and preseason camp, Keene earned the number two spot on the depth chart behind Gabriel and head coach Gus Malzahn announced during the open week that he would be the next man up for the Knights.
ABOVE VIDEO: Gus Malzahn Press Conference – Navy Week
“He’s a very intelligent young man,” Malzahn says. “He can process things. He’s very good with protection. He’s very good with coverage recognition, so I think we’re in good hands.” Keene saw his first collegiate action in UCF’s win over Bethune-Cookman on Sept. 11, going 4-of-7 for 55 yards with a touchdown, but Saturday will be his first true test.
The Knights have seen recent success playing true freshmen at quarterback, as both Gabriel and McKenzie Milton saw extended time as freshmen for UCF.
■ Defensive options against the option. It’s unclear which members of the UCF defense that were injured at Louisville will be back Saturday, as all have been announced as week-to-week.
Combine that with the fact that the Knights are going up against the Navy’s triple-option offense, seen scarcely around college football these days, and UCF is up for a challenge in Annapolis.
The only Knight defenders who saw action the last time UCF played Navy back in 2018 are Eriq Gilyard and Kalia Davis. Gilyard had nine tackles and one tackle for loss, while Davis had two tackles in limited action.
■ Armstrong’s strong connection. UCF senior linebacker Bryson Armstrong has two strong connections to the Navy and the triple option. He played four seasons at Kennesaw State, where the Owls offense ran the triple option.
He went up against this type of offense every day in practice. Armstrong also knows Navy’s defensive coordinator Brian Newberry very well, as he was Armstrong’s defensive coordinator at Kennesaw State from 2016-18.
In three games for the Knights, Armstrong ranks second on the team with 18 total tackles to go with a tackle for loss, a pass breakup, and a quarterback hurry.
Run, run, run. Even after the loss to Louisville, UCF has had success running the ball and defending the run early in the 2021 season.
The Knights rank 12th in the nation in rushing offense (252.3 yards per game), and 16th in the nation in rushing yards allowed (78.3 yards per game).
UCF rushed for 255 yards vs. Boise State, 290 against Bethune-Cookman, and 212 at Louisville. The Knights allowed only 20 yards on the ground to the Broncos, 24 to the Wildcats, and then 191 to the Cardinals.
This could be a factor due to the fact that the Navy runs the ball almost exclusively. The Midshipmen are usually among the nation’s leaders in rushing and come into Saturday’s game averaging 187.7 yards per game on the ground.
Starting conference play. Saturday marks the start of a new season, conference season. UCF has a clean slate and still has many of its goals still in sight.
The Knights have opened conference play with a win in each of the last five seasons (10/1/16, won 47-29 at ECU; 9/30/17, won 40-13 vs. Memphis; 8/30/18, won 56-17 at UConn; 9/28/19, won 56-21 vs. UConn; 9/26/20, won 51-28 at ECU). The last time UCF lost its conference openers was 2015, losing 45-31 at Tulane en route to an 0-12 campaign.
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