Panthers look to snap UCF’s 16-game win streak

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Panthers look to snap UCF’s 16-game win streak

Pitt running back LaRod Stephens-Howling runs for a touchdown against the University of Central Florida during the teams’ most recent match against each other at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, FL on Oct. 13, 2006. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)

Pitt running back LaRod Stephens-Howling runs for a touchdown against the University of Central Florida during the teams’ most recent match against each other at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, FL on Oct. 13, 2006. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)

Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT

Pitt running back LaRod Stephens-Howling runs for a touchdown against the University of Central Florida during the teams’ most recent match against each other at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, FL on Oct. 13, 2006. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)

Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT

Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT

Pitt running back LaRod Stephens-Howling runs for a touchdown against the University of Central Florida during the teams’ most recent match against each other at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, FL on Oct. 13, 2006. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)

By Nick Carlisano, Staff Writer

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The Panthers (2-2, 1-1 ACC) are looking to bounce back from their disappointing loss to North Carolina when they travel to Orlando to take on the University of Central Florida this Saturday. The #13 Knights are 3-0 this season and are currently riding the nation’s longest winning streak at 16 games following their undefeated 2017 season.

Last week, Coach Narduzzi and the Panthers fell to UNC in a 38-35 shootout. For some mysterious reason the Tar Heels have Pitt’s number, as they are the only team Pitt is yet to defeat since joining the ACC in 2013.

Meanwhile, Head Coach Josh Heupel’s Knights took care of Florida Atlantic 56-36 in Week 4. UCF has yet to win a game by less than 20 and have put up point totals of 56, 38 and 56 in their three games, presenting an incredibly difficult matchup for the Panther defense.

The Panther’s second half struggles were present once more last week, and this time it played a serious role in costing Pitt the game. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson’s offense scored on 4-6 possessions in the first half and successfully capitalized off of a UNC fumble to tie the game at 14 halfway through the second quarter. When UNC punted with a little over a minute to go in the half, the Panthers struck with a 1-yard Pickett TD pass to redshirt senior fullback George Aston to take the lead.

Like every other game this season, this game was a tale of two halves. The Panthers punted on 4-5 possessions, and a fumble by sophomore returner Maurice Ffrench wiped out the chance at a sixth. Various mistakes contributed to Pitt’s inability to drive down the field, including sacks and a play where Pickett caught his own deflected pass deep in the backfield rather than letting it fall incomplete.

Pitt’s rushing attack continued to come through despite a pass-heavy matchup. Redshirt senior running back Qadree Ollison reached the end zone for the third week in a row. He outcarried fellow senior RB Darrin Hall 12-6, but this week Hall did more with his touches. With just over three minutes to go in the half, Hall stiff armed a Tar Heel defender, cut back to the opposite side of the field, and raced to the end zone for a 65-yard score that tied the game at 21. The one-two punch is up to over 500 combined rushing yards this year.

UCF has allowed opponents to rush for 170 yards or more in their three games this season, and Florida Atlantic picked up 320 yards on the ground against UCF last week. Should Pitt keep the game in reach, the backfield should have no trouble finding room to run. However, a potential large deficit will likely give Shawn Watson no choice but to abandon the run.

There’s a good chance Pitt will be in comeback mode against UCF, so Pickett will have to drop back more than usual. It’s almost a given he will eclipse his previous high of 197 yards passing on the year due to sheer volume. However, UCF has been tough against the pass in two of their three games, giving up 127 yards against FAU and a low 80 against South Carolina.

Pickett will have his work cut out for him this week and will need receivers like sophomore Taysir Mack to make plays. Mack has yet to score, but has made plays downfield two weeks in a row, including gains of 60, 42, and 34 yards.

All in all, the Panthers will have to shed their second half woes if they want to avoid being blown out by the Knights. A steady rushing game and a high-volume, relentless pass attack are the keys to staying in the game against this top tier opponent.

The Pitt defense has no choice but to buckle down this week after their poor performance against the Tar Heels, or the result could be truly embarrassing. The Knights have the fifth best offense in college football and are averaging almost 600 yards a game. Meanwhile, the Panthers allowed a UNC offense that pales in comparison to Central Florida to gain 486 yards of offense.

Defensive coordinator Randy Bates’ defense allowed the Heels to score points on almost half of their possessions. The Pitt offense possessed the ball for a little more time in the contest, and UNC only converted 7-15 first down attempts. These stats, and the game film, make it evident that the Panther defense’s real issue is their knack for giving up big plays.

UNC scored touchdowns of 37 and 31 yards, while also giving up two more big plays of 47 and 37 yards. One touchdown was on a 4th and one and the result of a missed tackle. Another was a blown coverage where the RB slipped out of the backfield and ran free down the middle. A third was a simple fake route by a UNC receiver that tricked the Panther defender. Big plays and mental errors often put the Heels in the red zone or end zone, and UCF will undoubtedly capitalize if Pitt makes similar mistakes.

UCF possesses a pass-heavy, high-scoring offense led by junior quarterback McKenzie Milton, widely regarded as one of the better players in the nation. Milton has thrown for 895 yards and nine touchdowns this season, and that’s with a canceled game. The Panthers allowed Nathan Elliott to pass for over 300 yards last week, and Milton is certainly a more accomplished player that will be much tougher to stop.

Aside from Milton, UCF tends to spread the ball around under the direction of Coach Heupel. Five players have rushed for over 100 yards this season, and six have scored. Junior Adrian Killins Jr. leads the team with 193 yards and three scores, while Milton has added 147 yards and three TDs of his own. The Panthers struggled to contain Georgia Tech QB TaQuon Marshall, so they will need to put pressure on Milton and try and drop him in the backfield.

Sophomore Gabriel Davis is the leading receiver for the Knights, with 20 catches, 242 yards and three touchdowns. Two UNC receivers went for 84 and 110 yards last week, so the secondary will have to step up to stop Milton’s favorite target.

Although the Panther defense has had some struggles the past two weeks, there have still been bright spots. Captain and redshirt senior linebacker Quintin Wirginis is up to 28 tackles on the year. Redshirt junior corner Dane Jackson has forced two fumbles on the year, and the Panther offense was able to capitalize on one of these turnovers last week. The defensive line has, for the most part, done a solid job of containing the inside run, and redshirt junior Rashad Weaver has kept runners from getting outside. Weaver has also had a nose for getting to the football, having recovered three of the Panther’s forced fumbles this season.

Prediction

UCF: 48  Pitt: 35

The Central Florida Knights haven’t lost in over an entire season for a reason. They simply possess too much firepower for Pitt’s faltering defense to slow down. The Panther offense has shined at times, especially the run, but Ollison and Hall can only do so much, especially when trailing. The offense also hasn’t shown that they can put together three solid quarters, yet alone four. Blown coverages and poor tackling have become symbolic of the Panther defense, and Milton makes defenses pay for their mistakes. Although Coach Narduzzi has a knack for winning games against top-tier opponents, this game won’t follow that pattern. The Knights continue their unbeaten streak while the Panthers fall to their second ranked opponent of the season.

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