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September 17, 2013Louisville entered the first season of football in the American Athletic Conference as the unquestioned team to beat and the one drawing the most media attention.
The Cardinals remain atop The American until another team can prove otherwise, but there's a compelling story brewing in Orlando courtesy of the UCF football team. The Knights entered some very rare territory, by program standards, with last week's 34-31 win over Penn State.
UCF improved to 3-0 for the first time since 1988, and defeated an opponent from the Big Ten -- something the team had never accomplished before topping the Nittany Lions in State College. UCF also has one of the top-rated quarterbacks, statistically speaking, in Blake Bortles, who continues to gain momentum as an NFL prospect. UCF also continues to raise its national profile. The Knights received votes in both the Associated Press and coaches' polls. Add it up, and the Knights went into their September bye week with a boatload of momentum, and a good 14 days to prepare for their biggest non-conference game of the season.
"Right now, with the stage of the program and where we're at, we can build on a win like this," coach George O'Leary said following the victory at Penn State. "I think it's a big win, there's no question about it."
Bigger wins lie ahead if the Knights can continue to take care of business. UCF will host South Carolina when it returns to action during the final weekend of September, and what looked like a sure-fire loss for the Knights when initially analyzing their 2013 docket now looks more like an opportunity for UCF to make a huge statement on a national level.
More importantly, if the Knights could defeat the Gamecocks, it would make any game on UCF's schedule winnable.
Including the imminent clash with conference heavyweight Louisville.
UCF isn't the only faction that can benefit from the Knights' continued success. UCF and Louisville have been the two biggest bright spots in what's been a rough first month for The American. Temple suffered a loss to Football Championship Subdivision representative Fordham last week, becoming the third member of The American to lose to an FCS team thus far in the 2013 season.
BYE WEEK MISSION: Maintain the buzz. UCF heads into its open date on the cusp of what's arguably the biggest home game in the history of the Knights program when South Carolina comes calling to Bright House Networks Stadium. Less than 1,500 tickets were available for this game as of the Monday of the open week, but somehow UCF has to maintain its momentum and build upon it heading into this clash against the Gamecocks. One potential sticking point? A noon kickoff, which could make some hesitant to come out and combat the Orlando heat.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--UCF QB Blake Bortles continues to play at a high level, going into the off week fifth in the Football Bowl Subdivision in passer rating and coming off a 20-of-27, 288-yard, three-touchdown performance in last week's upset at Penn State that earned Bortles offensive player of the week honors in The American Athletic Conference. Bortles has thrown for seven touchdowns and an interception through one quarter of the 2013 season, connecting on four plays that reaped 25 or more yards against Penn State. "He played a great game tonight and all the credit to him. I think he is a heck of a player," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said after the game against UCF.
--Looking for a breakout player for UCF? Look no further than RB Storm Johnson. In his first campaign as the starting back, the transfer from Miami already has more rushing touchdowns in 2013 (six) than he had in his entire previous career (five). Johnson was fantastic against Penn State, tallying 117 yards on 17 carries for his first 100-yard game at the collegiate level. His big night included a 58-yard run for a touchdown, another career long.
--Torrian Wilson might have the most scrutinized knee in Central Florida this week. Wilson, UCF's standout starter at left tackle, didn't play against Penn State after he had an arthroscopic treatment on the MCL in his knee. Coach George O'Leary said on Monday of the off week, however, that Wilson was running again and should be ready to go against South Carolina. Good news considering the Gamecocks have star DE Jadeveon Clowney, one of the top NFL prospects in the nation.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Beating a Big Ten team for the first time is going to be a big confidence booster for the team. I think this is going to give us the motivation we need to keep going and try to beat every team we play this year." -- UCF OL Chris Martin, after the win over Penn State
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the offense: RB Storm Johnson accounted for more than half of UCF's net rushing total in the Knights' 34-31 upset win at Penn State. QB Blake Bortles is putting together a tremendous season. Bortles has thrown for a touchdown in 11 consecutive games, though he had a streak of 232 consecutive pass attempts without an interception snapped during the Penn State game. The X-factor might be WR Jeff Godfrey, a former starting QB at UCF who ran for a 49-yard touchdown out of the Knights' version of the Wildcat against the Nittany Lions.
Scouting the defense: DL E.J. Dunston showed his disruptive ability against UCF, with his first sack of the season. The Knights have four sacks through their first three games, and 20 total tackles for loss. LB Terrance Plummer, one of the few returnees of note in the front seven for the Knights, faced high expectations and has lived up to the billing. Plummer is leading UCF in tackles (28) and tackles for loss (3.0), and won defensive player of the week honors in The American Athletic Conference in the first week of the season.
Scouting the special teams: PK Shawn Moffitt is off to a 4-for-4 start on field goals for UCF through the first quarter of the 2013 season. UCF had a breakdown in the kicking game against Penn State, as a snap sailed over the head of punter Caleb Houston for an 18-yard loss and set up a quick touchdown by the Nittany Lions. UCF also allowed an average of 23.1 yards on kickoff returns against Penn State.
ROSTER REPORT: --Starting LB Willie Mitchell was suspended for the Penn State game, but coach Georg O'Leary said he would be back in action against South Carolina.
--DE Miles Pace, OG Tarik Cook, LB Chequan Burkett and TE Kevin Miller all made their first career starts against Penn State. Burkett became the first true freshman to start at linebacker for UCF since Terrance Plummer in 2011.
--WRs Rannell Hall and Jeff Godfrey will go into the South Carolina game having made at least one reception in 18 and 17 consecutive games, respectively.