Rankings mean nothing once the ball is kicked off. USF's sluggish performance on both sides of the football against a determined FAU team should have been a wake-up call and a preview of things to come. As long as there's a poll number attached to their name, the Bulls will be a target for teams hoping to write headlines for themselves. This is not a team that's capable of playing winning football without emotion. USF will have to match or exceed the juice of its opponents if the Bulls want to stay on their lofty perch. We also learned that USF isn't likely to succeed unless Matt Grothe continues to be a big part of the running game. Any thoughts that the staff could turn those duties over to its running back by committee and keep Grothe tucked away in relative safety are dashed. Grothe is just too valuable a weapon not to allow him to carry the football with regularity.
That UCF must protect the football if it wants to win games. The Knights took a 28-17 lead into the locker room at halftime, but five turnovers on consecutive possessions in the third quarter enabled East Carolina to come back and win the game, 52-38. UCF didn't have any trouble moving the football against the Pirates – the Knights outgained ECU in most statistical categories and had nearly 500 yards of total offense – but turnovers killed UCF's chances to claim the top spot in Conference USA's East Division. The quarterbacks accounted for four of those five turnovers. Senior starter Kyle Israel threw two interceptions, backup Michael Greco had a fumble and an interception, and running Kevin Smith was stripped and fumbled.
USF will win if . . .
UCF will win if . . .
It is able to turn Kevin Smith into a non-factor and force the Knights to move the ball consistently through the air. Smith leads the nation in rushing with more than 800 yards already. He is responsible for 43-percent of the Knights' total offense. QB Kyle Israel can make plays, but he has been prone to key turnovers and is only completing 53-percent of his passes. Of course, the Bulls will have to produce more pressure on Israel than they did a week ago when FAU quarterback Rusty Smith was rarely hurried. Offensively, USF must establish a running game in order to open up the passing lanes.
The offense can find balance against USF's tough defense. NCAA leading rusher Kevin Smith will be the focus, but the Knights will still need to be able to pass the ball. Smith will likely get his yards, but the Knights will need a big day from Kyle Israel and the wide receivers to help ease some of the burden. Defensively, UCF needs a Texas-like performance, and not the effort they put forth last week at East Carolina. UCF bent some, but didn't break against Texas last month, and made key stops on third and fourth down. Despite the turnovers, UCF had chances to stop ECU drives, but couldn't.
USF will lose if . . .
UCF will lose if . . .
The Bulls continue to give the football away. Despite wins the past two weeks, the Bulls have been plagued by turnovers. They've already lost 10 fumbles through five games and, if they continue with that trend, the week will come when they will be unable to compensate. It'll also be difficult for USF if the Knights get Smith on track early and allow them to gain confidence. If UCF feeds off emotion and some first-half success, it could be enough to carry the Knights to an upset.
Turnovers continue to be a problem. The second team had some issues with turning the ball over in blowout victories last month against Memphis and Louisiana-Lafayette, but the real concern came last week when the starters coughed the ball up in a disastrous third quarter at East Carolina. If UCF can't protect the football against a team like USF, it could be a long day. The Bulls defense has already proven that is has the ability to turn mistakes into points in a hurry.
The X-factor could be . . .
The X-factor could be . . .
Nose tackle Richard Clebert. He is the unsung hero on USF's defense who consistently takes on double teams and allows his teammates to make plays. Clebert could be especially vital this week, clogging the middle and allowing USF's linebackers to hone in on Kevin Smith. The senior can also make plays himself. He's tenth on the team in tackles (19), second in sacks (2) and leads in quarterback hurries (14).
Quarterback Kyle Israel. UCF was driving for the winning score late in the fourth quarter against Texas, but Israel's fumble ended chances for a comeback. Most of the attention has rightfully been on Kevin Smith, but Israel knows this is his last chance against the Bulls as a senior. If Israel can manage the game well and be effective in the passing game, he has the opportunity to make this a career statement game.
Bulls respond after struggle at FAU and win 27-17.
UCF wins a tight battle, 31-28.
QB Matt Grothe vs. UCF secondary
USF RB Kevin Smith vs. USF front seven
If the Bulls are going to continue to be productive, Matt Grothe needs to get the passing game back on track. Although he is completing better than 60-percent for more than 900 yards on the season, Grothe and his receivers haven't produced many big plays. Minus a long TD pass to Carlton Mitchell vs. WVU, the Bulls are only averaging around 100 passing yards and seven yards per completion the past two weeks. Opponents are throwing for 213 yards per game on the Knights, so they are vulnerable.
Kevin Smith has rushed for than 120 yards against every team he's faced this season – including a 149-yard effort against Texas – but USF will likely be the best defense he's gone up against. Smith, a bigger back at 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, can be physical in picking up extra yardage, but he can also break off for big runs. His first carry of the season was an 80-yard touchdown run at NC State. Can he still find his yards if USF stacks eight or nine in the box?
USF's Jim Leavitt
UCF's George O'Leary
"Any time you have two teams in Florida, you just throw out all of the records. A lot of these guys grew up and went to the same high schools, they had their high school rivalries, and all that stuff, and they are going to play, that's just the way it is. Like FAU last week, it's going to be a similar situation this weekend with Central Florida. I know that it will be a game that will be a battle. I know that they will come in and play their best and I know that our guys will play hard and I think it's going to be a heck of a ball game."
"Everybody says it does not matter. Of course it matters, if it did not matter, then why do they throw it in your face during recruiting? When I look at our fan base, I get more mail, e-mails, and calls about South Florida for the last four weeks. I was getting that mail before the Texas game. Our fans have a great interest. I think just because of the closeness and we have a lot of young fans just like they do that sometimes they talk before they think. I think the more traditional schools that have long term tradition, they do not get involved as much about talking about stuff, rather they do it on the field."
Key Stat – USF DEFENSE
Key Stats – RB KEVIN SMITH
The USF defense will be tested by Kevin Smith on Saturday, but it has been 13 games since the Bulls allowed an opposing back to rush for more than 100 yards. The last player to do it was Rutgers' Ray Rice in week five of the 2006 season. This season, the most USF has allowed is 62 yards by Auburn's Mario Fannin. The Bulls, however, will need to bounce back from a sub-par effort last week, when they allowed FAU's Willie Rose (59) and Charles Pierre (57) to combine for 116 yards and 5.3 yards per carry.
UCF junior running back Kevin Smith leads the NCAA in rushing with 172 yards per game and is also No. 1 in rushing touchdowns with 11. He is one of only two running backs nationally to rush for more than 200 yards on two occasions this season. Smith is already third all-time on UCF's career rushing list and is on pace to break UCF's career rushing record this season. This will be Smith's first real game against USF. He did not play in last year's matchup and only had two carries in a backup role in 2005.
USF has scored first in each of its five games this season and has also scored first coming out of halftime of every game. The Bulls have owned the first and third quarters, outscoring opponents 42-3 and 45-16, respectively . . . USF's offense has proven to be incredibly balanced so far. The Bulls have run for 905 total yards and passed for 913 . . . USF has been considerably more effective inside the red zone this season. The Bulls have converted 77-percent of their red-zone possessions into points (17-22) and scored touchdowns on 59-percent of those opportunities . . . After attempting nine field goals in games against Auburn (6) and North Carolina (3), Delbert Alvarado has had only one try the past two weeks – a 47-yard miss against West Virginia . . . Starting linebackers Tyrone McKenzie (44), Brouce Mompremier (44) and Ben Moffitt (42) are all on pace to record more than 100 total tackles this season. The Bulls have never had more than two defensive players eclipse 100 tackles in the same season.
USF will be the second top 10 team UCF faces this season. The Knights lost Sept. 15 to then-No. 6 Texas, 35-32. USF is the highest ranked team UCF will play since facing No. 4 Florida in the 1999 season . . . Two of UCF's top three receivers are true freshmen. Kamar Aiken is tied with junior Rocky Ross with 18 receptions, but Aiken has the most receiving yards with 337. He also has a team-leading three touchdowns this season. Another true freshman, A.J. Guyton, is right behind those two with 17 catches for 147 yards and one touchdown . . . Senior defensive end Leger Douzable is UCF's only player from Tampa. He is tied for the team lead with two sacks and leads all defensive linemen with 17 tackles . . . UCF has one of the nation's most experienced offensive lines. The group has more than 100 combined starts between them and returns four starters from last season. The line includes two seniors – right tackle Josh Sitton and center Kyle Smith . . . UCF has scored 135 of its 188 points this season in the first half.