GAME NOTES: The 17th-ranked UCF Knights will attempt to keep rolling and remain atop the American Athletic Conference standings when they host the South Florida Bulls in an Sunshine State league battle at Bright House Networks Stadium.
Friday's contest begins a two-game road trip to close out the season for the Bulls. In the first year under new head coach Willie Taggart, USF has failed far more than it has succeeded as a 16-6 loss to SMU last weekend was the team's fourth straight loss. All of those setbacks came in league play as the losing streak has spoiled a 2-0 start to the conference slate for USF, which is sporting just a 2-8 overall mark and will miss out on the postseason for the third straight season.
As for UCF, the season still holds a great deal of promise. With a win on Friday the Knights would earn at least a share of the AAC title and put themselves in fantastic shape in terms of the league's automatic BCS bid. UCF has won six straight games entering play this weekend, with its most recent victory a resounding 41-17 decision over Rutgers. The winning streak has moved the Knights to their highest ranking ever and with one more win, their third 10-win season in the last four years.
"We just look at it as another conference game that we have to win," UCF wide receiver Jeff Godfrey said of this matchup though offensive lineman Jordan McCray added, "We know that we're in a great position as we are. We know if we win the game Friday and the next game after that then we'll be the conference champions."
This is the first meeting between these programs as conference rivals. The Bulls took home victories in all four of the previous contests when they met in non-league action.
Taggart has not been able to coax much from the Bulls in terms of offensive production this season. No team in the AAC is picking up fewer yards (263.2 ypg) or scoring less than the Bulls (13.9 ppg).
"It's just a matter of our guys calming down and playing with confidence and not pressing when we do things well," Taggart said of his team's offensive struggles. "That's a big problem with our offense we'll get something going and we'll revert back."
A big issue has been a lack of consistency at the quarterback position. At different times this season Steven Bench, Bobby Eveld and Mike White have all taken turns as the starter under center. None of the three has had much success. White got the start against SMU last weekend and he threw for 217 yards on 19-of-32 passing. However he was also picked off twice, bringing his season total to seven in just four games. Of the three White is the only player to have completed better than 50 percent of his pass attempts and average more than 100 yards per game.
When White is completing passes he is fortunate enough to have Andre Davis to get the ball to. Davis has more than twice as many receptions (41) and yards (634) as any player on the roster and he is also tied for the team lead with a pair of receiving touchdowns. Davis pulled in five passes for 113 yards against SMU last weekend. Mike McFarland (20 receptions, 232 yards, two TDs) is the second-best receiving option.
Taggart has shown a dedication to the run this season, partially due to the lack of production from the passing game. The beneficiary of the game plan is Marcus Shaw, who has totaled 714 yards on 125 carries, with two touchdowns. Even though Taggart has put an onus on the ground game, Shaw's two scores are the only ones the Bulls have managed from the backfield.
What Taggart has been able to instill in South Florida is a strong defensive message. USF is ranked fifth in the league in total defense (355.8 ypg). Last week, against an SMU ranked second in the AAC in total offense, the Bulls let up only 16 points and 280 yards of total offense. DeDe Lattimore (76 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks) is the leader of the unit and one of the better all-around defenders in the conference.
The Knights are clearly the better offensive team in this matchup as they are posting much better numbers both in total yards (455 ypg) and points scored (35.8 ppg). In fact no team in the conference in scoring more points per game than UCF.
At the center of it all is Blake Bortles. The Knights' quarterback has enjoyed a very successful season with 2,819 yards and 20 touchdowns on 68.3 percent passing. Bortles has kept his mistakes to a minimum as well with only five interceptions. On top of his ability to throw, Bortles can also take off and run, though he has rarely needed to. Against Rutgers last weekend, Bortles threw for 335 yards and a touchdown and added a score on the ground.
Bortles has a nice trio of receivers to choose from. J.J. Worton (36 receptions, 617 yards, two TDs) has been the top guy of late as he has 15 receptions, 296 yards and three scores in the last two weeks. Rannell Hall (45 receptions, 681 yards, three TDs) still gets plenty of passes and Breshad Perriman (32 receptions, 666 yards, two TDs) came back strong last week to record 99 yards on five receptions after missing the previous game.
Storm Johnson is the best option for the Knights on the ground. Johnson racked up 75 yards and two scores last weekend to push himself closer to a 1,000-yard season. In all the Johnson has 916 yards and 11 touchdowns on 172 carries. William Stanback (347 yards, six TDs) is also in the mix in the running game.
Defensively, the Knights are a step ahead of the Bulls in yards allowed (354.9 ypg), while letting up 20.2 points per game. UCF has done so without creating much pressure, as they rank in the bottom half of the league in tackles for loss and sacks. Terrance Plummer (81 tackles, 2.0 sacks) is the leader of the unit.
The Bulls shave shown that they can slow teams down this season and they may be able to have some success against the Knights. However, without any offense to speak of, it won't make a difference. With Bortles at the helm, the Knights will push themselves to a 10th victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: UCF 28, South Florida 10