Although it's not shaping up to be a typical season for Stanford, UCF made a major statement last week as the Knights crushed the Cardinal, 45-27, in a contest that may not have been as close as the final score. No. 15 UCF will look for a second win over a Power 5 team in as many weeks on Saturday as it travels north to face Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh comes in with a record of just 1-2, but both losses were competitive games against teams that are currently ranked. The Panthers fell last week to Penn State, 17-10. Pittsburgh, however, wasn't overly impressive in its only victory — a 20-10 win over MAC member Ohio.
UCF dominated in last season's contest in Orlando, racking up nearly 600 yards of offense in a 45-14 victory. The Knights didn't allow an offensive touchdown until the game's final five minutes. UCF has not lost a regular-season game since 2016.
UCF at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: UCF -12.5
When UCF Has the Ball
Prior to the season, it looked like the battle to replace the injured McKenzie Milton at quarterback for UCF would be between Darriel Mack Jr. and Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush. Through three games, it's clear that the pipeline from Hawaii to Central Florida is a good one as freshman Dillon Gabriel has lit up opposing defenses. To this point, Gabriel has 10 total touchdowns, no interceptions and ranks fourth nationally in passer rating behind only Jalen Hurts, Joe Burrow, and Tua Tagovailoa.
Gabriel will have no shortage of talent around him on Saturday as the three-headed monster at tailback of Greg McCrae, Adrian Killins and Bentavious Thompson have combined for 538 yards on 6.3 yards per carry and six rushing touchdowns. Out wide, Gabriel Davis leads the Knights with 229 yards receiving and three touchdowns while averaging nearly 23 yards per catch. For UCF, five different players have at least 100 yards receiving so far this season.
The strength for Pittsburgh early on looks to be the defense as the Panthers have surrendered just 19 points per game through three contests. For comparison's sake, UCF had 21 points last week against Stanford before the midway point of the first quarter. Sophomore defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman is tied for the ACC lead with 4.5 sacks on the young season. As a team, Pittsburgh ranks third in the ACC in that category with 12.
The Panthers have talent across the board defensively. Safety Paris Ford leads the team with 20 total tackles while linebacker Phil Campbell already has a pair of forced fumbles. Gabriel likes to take shots down the field for the Knights and Pittsburgh junior cornerback Damarri Mathis has been one of the ACC's best cover men early on in 2019.
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
While the Pittsburgh defense is allowing less than 20 points per game, the offense has yet to break that number in three games. The Panthers entered the season having to replace the dynamic rushing duo of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. So far, that production has not come close to being duplicated as junior quarterback Kenny Pickett, who was widely regarded as a game manager, is being asked to do more with his arm.
With a ground game that averages less than three yards per carry, Pickett ranks second in the ACC in passing yards behind only Wake Forest's Jamie Newman with 878. Maurice Ffrench and Taysir Mack have been largely possession receivers this season for the Panthers while running back A.J. Davis has been a reliable receiving option out of the backfield. Davis has a team-high 285 yards from scrimmage this season.
UCF is known for its offense, which ranks third nationally, but defensively, the Knights also rank 13th in total defense (253.0 ypg). Linebacker Nate Evans has been arguably UCF's best defensive player so far this season with a team-high 18 tackles and 4.5 for loss. The Knights may be best in the secondary with the trio of Richie Grant, Aaron Robinson, and Antwan Collier.
Surprisingly, the Knights have not been a great pass-rushing team. They have just seven sacks on the season with senior Brendon Hayes leading the squad with two. UCF has not allowed an opposing player to rush for 100 yards yet this season.
For the second week in a row, UCF will face a Power 5 opponent that looks like it could legitimately give it a challenge. The Panthers enter this game 1-2, but they led Virginia at halftime and fell to Penn State by just a touchdown a week ago. Pittsburgh may have enough bodies to contain UCF's high-octane offense early on, but the question will be whether the Panthers can score enough to really keep things interesting. When it comes down to it, UCF hasn't been held below 30 points since the Cure Bowl to cap 2016 while Pittsburgh hasn't been able to score more than 20 points in any game this year.
Prediction: UCF 34, Pittsburgh 21
(Top photo courtesy @UCF_Football)