There have been plenty of sleepless nights and bleary-eyed morning of late for Huxtable as his UCF defenses have faced the up-tempo, pinball-scoring offenses from East Carolina, Houston and Southern Miss. And what isn’t a joking matter is the fact that after ranking in the nation’s top 15 in defense most of the early part of the season, the Knights have struggled mightily of late.

UCF was able to survive some defensive difficulties against East Carolina (a 49-35 win) and Houston (a 40-33 victory), but the troubles spelled doom last Saturday against Southern Miss (a 31-21 defeat).

Up next for UCF (7-3 overall and 5-1 in C-USA) is a Tulane team that beat Rutgers earlier in the season and whipped Rice on Saturday by scoring 54 points. The Green Wave ranks 47th in the nation in passing yards (238.7) and 68th in scoring offense (26.2). And Huxtable is determined that his defense will solve its recent struggles.

“My job is to get this defense playing and it starts with me, not the kids,” Huxtable said. “I take total, absolute responsibility for what’s happened the last three weeks, but we have to pull it all together and go out and perform on Saturday and perform.”

Huxtable said that it’s almost been like a tale of two seasons defensively what with UCF facing mostly running, smash-mouth teams early in the season and hurry-up, pass-happy teams the past three weeks. UCF handled the former just fine, ranking atop Conference USA and in the nation’s top 15 early on. But it’s the latter that has challenged UCF’s conditioning, depth and play-making abilities of late.

To wit: In the first seven games of the season, UCF allowed just 97 points (13.8 points per game). But in the past three games, the Knights have yielded 99 points (33 points per game).

“It has been different (facing the run-and-shoot offenses), but it’s been different from our standpoint because we’re not doing the same things that we were doing early in the season,” UCF standout defensive end Bruce Miller said. “We were shutting people down and we were Top 10 in the country and we’ve gotten away from those things. We have to get back to doing that.”

UCF has to get back to doing that because it can’t afford to lose again if it still wants to accomplish its goals of winning the C-USA title. The Knights, who are ahead of East Carolina because of their head-to-head win, must beat Tulane and Memphis on the road to lock up the East Division and host the C-USA title game on Dec. 4. Their margin for error much smaller now, the Knights know that turning around their defensive issues must start Saturday against Tulane in the Louisiana Superdome.

“We can’t have any more letdowns because East Carolina is right there,” outside linebacker Derrick Hallman said. “We lose a game and they are in the championship and we’re not. So we can’t lose any more games and we know how big this week is and next week,too.”

UCF can take a major step toward clearing up its defensive issues by making improvements on third down. Southern Miss was able to wear down UCF’s defense by converting time and again on third down to keep long drives going. The Golden Eagles converted 11 of 16 times on third down, including three times on what proved to be the go-ahead scoring drive. The third down woes kept the Knights on the field for 72 plays.

“We have third-and-seven, we’re about to get off the field and we get a pass interference call. We’ve got a third-and-10 and we have the coverage that we want and we don’t keep our eyes on the quarterback and he escapes for the first down,” Huxtable recalled. “There were so many third downs where it’s just us shooting ourselves in the foot and not letting us get off the field on third down. It’s frustrating right now for me and everybody else and we’re putting a big emphasis on third downs. I know these guys want to do right and we’re working hard to get it corrected.”

Again, the third-down problems is a relatively new issue for the Knights’ defense. In the first seven weeks of the season, UCF foes converted on third down just 37 percent of the time (37 of 100). In the past three weeks, East Carolina (12 of 17), Houston (eight of 16) and Southern Miss (11 of 16) have converted 63.2 percent of the time (31 of 49).

“Third down that’s the money down. That’s when you have to get off the field,” senior safety Reggie Weems said. “It’s the most important play of the series. The coaches have been stressing it. We have to get off the field and the quicker that we can get the ball back to the offense, the quicker they can score points.”

The Knights could use another defensive gem like the one they put up last season against Tulane at Bright House Networks Stadium. In that game, UCF won 49-0 in the most-lopsided shutout in C-USA history. Also, UCF limited Tulane to -30 yards rushing and surrendered 50 yards in 51 plays, the fewest yards ever allowed in a C-USA game.

Dominating like that again will be very difficult because of Tulane’s growth, Huxtable said.

“They’re a no-huddle offense again, but not quite as fast a tempo (as Southern Miss),” he said. “They’re much improved from last year and a totally different from last year. They have a lot of gadget plays, so we’ll have to be on target.’

John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at [email protected]