(Dillon Gabriel photo courtesy Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports)
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Note: The 5/5 does NOT represent the best overall pick of the day’s games when there are multiple games, simply the best pick(s) from each individual game.
When and Where: Friday, Oct. 4, Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio, 8 p.m. EDT.
Eighteenth-ranked UCF puts its 17-game in-season conference winning streak on the line Friday night at Cincinnati in what could be one of its most difficult challenges in the American Athletic Conference this season.
The Knights (4-1, 1-0 AAC East) ran the table in conference play each of the last two seasons in addition to beating Memphis both times in the AAC title game and picked up where they left off Saturday by trouncing Connecticut 56-21.
Dillon Gabriel had three first-half touchdown passes to Gabriel Davis and finished with 281 yards on just 11 completions as UCF scored the first 56 points of the game and coasted. Josh Heupel’s team rolled up 607 yards of offense on just 67 plays while being on the field barely more than 21 minutes.
Cincinnati’s lone blemish on the season was its 42-0 loss at then-No. 5 Ohio State on Sept. 7. The Bearcats (3-1, 0-0 East) have since regrouped with back-to-back victories and are coming off a 52-14 waxing of Marshall on the road Saturday.
Desmond Ridder also had three first-half touchdown passes and finished 18 of 22 for 218 yards with four scores in helping Cincinnati score the first 45 points of the contest and more than double Marshall’s total yards (525-256).
The Bearcats have dropped 13 straight to AP Top 25 teams since a 45-44 win at Pittsburgh in 2009, a run that started with their 51-24 loss to then-No. 5 Florida in the 2010 Sugar Bowl after Brian Kelly left Cincinnati to take the Notre Dame job following a 12-0 regular-season record.
Two of those 13 losses were lopsided defeats to UCF each of the last two years, including a 38-13 setback in Orlando last season when McKenzie Milton threw for three TD passes and 268 yards.
Gabriel making sure Knights don’t skip a beat without Milton
Though its 35-34 loss at Pitt probably knocked UCF out of any consideration for the College Football Playoff this season, it is still a formidable program with 29 wins over its last 31 games dating back to the start of the 2017 season.
One reason for the success this season as Milton continues to recover from a horrific leg injury suffered in the 2018 regular-season finale versus South Florida has been the play of Gabriel. The true freshman has quickly grasped Heupel’s offense and has thrown for 1,338 yards and 14 touchdowns with only two interceptions in just four games.
“He did a great job in the pocket, subtle movements in the pocket, and finding the soft spot and being able to deliver a ball,” Heupel said about Gabriel’s bounce-back effort from the loss to Pittsburgh during his weekly media availability. “I thought he did a good job taking care of it, good decision-making, I was pleased with the way he played.”
Gabriel’s emergence, coupled with the return from injury of Darriel Mack Jr. has created enough of a crowd at quarterback that Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush has been practicing with the wide receivers this week.
Wimbush started the season-opener against Florida A&M, throwing for 168 yards and a pair of touchdowns in UCF’s 62-0 thrashing of the Rattlers, but Heupel told the Orlando Sentinel he was not 100 percent the following week and has thrown just one pass since.
Wimbush does not lack for athleticism — he was the first Notre Dame quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards since Tony Rice in 1988. He has 16 yards on 10 carries, but was not listed on the team’s two-deep roster at either quarterback or wide receiver on the team’s official website.
Davis has emerged as Gabriel’s top target with 25 catches for 499 yards, and his eight receiving touchdowns are tied for second among FBS players and exceeded his total for all of 2018.
“We’re going to continue to be hungry no matter how many wins we have or how many times we lose,” Davis told the Orlando Sentinel. “We’re going to stick together and keep pushing throughout the weeks and try to get a win.”
Running back Adrian Killins Jr. proved troublesome as a pass-catcher out of the backfield in last year’s win for UCF, totaling four receptions for 82 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Bearcats hoping to use Marshall rout as springboard
Even before plowing through Marshall last weekend, Bearcats coach Luke Fickell had sensed something was off with his team. Ridder took matters into his own hands to fix that problem with his two first-quarter touchdown passes, including a picture-perfect corner ball to Rashad Medaris that opened the scoring and sent the Bearcats on their way.
“In past weeks, we haven’t started off strong, started off fast. That was a big thing this week, to start fast. We did that. We prepared and we executed,” Ridder told The Athletic. “The whole team was kind of off. We were in a little rut, a little drought. To come out here, one big thing was to have fun, enjoy what we’re doing. You could really tell that we did that.”
Ridder did not have poor numbers in the loss to the Buckeyes, completing 13 of 20 passes for 166 yards with an interception, but where he failed to deliver was sustaining drives. Cincinnati was 3 of 14 on third down in that contest and will be in for a challenge against a UCF defense ranked 13th in the country in allowing a conversion rate of 27.9 percent (24 for 86).
Not helping matters is the unknown status of left guard Jeremy Cooper, who suffered a leg injury in the win over Marshall. Vincent McConnell would be Cooper’s likely replacement and would mark Fickell’s third different offensive line in Cincinnati’s five games.
Cincinnati played near flawlessly on defense into the second half, forcing the Thundering Herd to punt on eight of their first nine possessions — the other was stopped by halftime — and allowed just five first downs in the first three quarters.
“I think we were really good on first down. That was a big key for us, having the ability to change up a little bit coverage-wise,” Fickell said. “In a lot of those third-down situations, they were eight-plus.”
Trends of Note
- 5-16 ATS in its last 21 games vs. above-.500 teams.
- 0-4 ATS in its last four home games vs. teams with an above-.500 road record.
- 1-4 ATS in its last five games after allowing less than 170 passing yards in its previous game.
- 8-3 ATS in its last 11 conference games.
- 5-1 ATS in its last six games following an ATS loss.
- 20-8-1 ATS in its last 29 games following a straight up win by 20 or more points.
Cincinnati UNDER 29.5 points (-110)
The hedge is that Cincinnati will try to shorten this game with its ground attack to keep UCF’s offense off the field. That plays into taking the under for the Bearcats in picking UCF to cover, and there is confidence in the Knights’ defense doing enough to short-circuit a scoring drive or two to force the Bearcats into kicking field goals.
UCF -3.5 (-115)
While this has the feel of a close game, the culture of winning that separates UCF from Cincinnati is what will help the Knights pull out this game on the road. That is not to say the Bearcats will be a pushover, but UCF is a team that has been there and done that while taking the best shots from the AAC for two-plus years running.
There is a little bit of concern with Gabriel making his first conference road start, but he did show a quick learning capacity in bouncing back from the loss at Pittsburgh and should have enough with Davis to see UCF through to an 18th straight regular-season conference win.
UCF -2.5 1st half (-110)
The Knights are a formidable first-half team offensively, scoring 28 or more points in the first two quarters in four of their five games. Cincinnati did not put together a complete first-half performance until beating Marshall and was held to 14 or fewer in the three games before lighting up the Herd.
UNDER 62.5 points (-110)
The teams have cleared this number just once in the four games they have played since becoming conference rivals, and that was in the lone game at Nippert Stadium in 2017. The under has trended well with UCF on the road, hitting in four of the last five and in seven of its last eight versus teams with winning home records.
The under is also 5-2 in Cincinnati’s last seven games versus above-.500 teams. It would not be surprising to see the winning team with at least 30 points, but UCF’s underrated defense has the capacity to prevent this from being a shootout.
This line has climbed 2.5 points higher drawing closer to kickoff, and though it is on a low-side hook of a flat touchdown total, this game does not have the feel of one that will feature nine touchdowns.
OVER 31 points 1st half (-115)
The expectation is UCF will carry most of this total with the help of its big-play offense — the Knights have had nine offensive touchdowns covering at least 25 yards in the first half of their five games and had a 10th contributed by the defense. Gabriel should be able to find weaknesses in Cincinnati’s defense to help the over eke out a win here.