But maybe no game in Bright House Networks Stadium’s brief four-year history holds more significance to the UCF Knights than Saturday afternoon’s showdown against East Carolina.
First, the 3:30 p.m. is a matchup of C-USA’s best teams as evidenced by UCF’s 5-2 overall mark and 3-0 record in league play, while East Carolina is 5-2 and 4-0. It’s the latest matchup between undefeated C-USA teams since the league went to 10 teams. The winner will not only have a leg up in the race to win the East Division, but will also be the heavy favorite to host the Conference USA title game in December.
UCF and East Carolina have quickly become C-USA’s two elite teams, combining to win the last three league titles. And coincidentally, both teams enter this game having won nine consecutive conference games, so something has to give on Saturday.
“This is definitely one of the biggest games that we’ve had here because of everything that’s on the line,” UCF star defensive end Bruce Miller said. “We’re the only two undefeated teams left in the conference and it’s a game that we need if we want to complete our goals. Dropping this game would probably be the end of (winning the conference title), so this is huge for us. It ranks right up there with the most important games we’ve ever played here.”
Factor in that East Carolina has been the one C-USA team that has had the upper hand on the Knights and it makes winning even more critical for UCF. The Pirates, winners of the past two C-USA titles, have beaten UCF each of the past four years and own an 8-1 record all-time against the Knights. UCF’s senior class has never been a part of beating East Carolina, ramping up the urgency of this game even more.
“It burns us tremendously when you think that there hasn’t been a team out there that we haven’t consistently beaten or been competitive with,” UCF senior defensive end David Williams said. “Every game with ECU we’ve just come up short and most of that has been due to turnovers and mental errors. It’s a huge inspiration for us that we haven’t been able to take these guys down since I’ve been here and it’s translates now to our younger guys. We feel that and want to beat them.”
UCF enters this game playing arguably its best football of the season, having won three conference games in a row. The Knights climbed to the “others receiving votes” portion of the Top 25 polls this week, and they are well aware that a defeat of a good East Carolina team could help the Knights get ranked nationally for the first time in school history. But none of that is likely possible without the Knights finding a way to finally topple East Carolina.
“They’re all big, but this game will put somebody in the driver’s seat,” UCF head coach George O’Leary admitted. “We still have a lot of big conference games the next month and each one is going to be important, but you play them one at a time. This game, based on the records of the teams, is a really big conference game to see where we’re at and be able to control our own destiny.”
East Carolina has, at times, looked like a team of destiny after the way they rallied past Tulsa 51-49 in the season-opener, climbed out of a 20-0 hole to down Southern Miss by a point and toppled NC State in overtime. Longtime coach Skip Holtz is now at USF, replaced by Ruffin McNeill, a long-time defensive coordinator who has implemented the pass-happy run-and-shoot offense from Texas Tech.
Junior quarterback Dominique Davis, who played briefly at Boston College and faced UCF in 2008, has thrived in the wide-open offensive attack. He has three 300-yard passing games, including 376 in the home win against NS State. Despite not joining East Carolina until four weeks before the opener this season, Davis has completed 63 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,023 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Rangy wide out Dwayne Harris has done loads of damage to UCF in the past and he’s in the midst of his finest season. He’s already caught 54 passes for 604 yards and five touchdowns, often taking short throws and using his elusiveness to create big plays. With 221 catches, 2,482 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns, he will likely leave East Carolina as the schools’ most decorated receiver ever.
But UCF will present a major challenge defensively. A top-10 defense in the nation, UCF is far-and-away Conference USA’s leaders in scoring defense, passing defense, passing efficiency defense and total defense. UCF ranks 14th in the country against the run and ninth against the pass.
So it’s two great teams – one that wins with defense (UCF) and another who regularly batters foes with a potent offense (East Carolina). Saturday’s game will likely be a test of wills, and UCF senior linebacker Derrick Hallman said there’s no denying the importance of this showdown.
“It’s definitely a statement game for us because we can get our season back the way we want it to be,” Hallman said. “We can’t be 12-0 like we wanted, but we can finish off 10-2 and hopefully 12-2. This is definitely the biggest game that we’ll play this year.”
John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.