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That UCF Gus Bus we were so excited about before the season is now officially having serious mechanical difficulties and may need a complete engine overhaul after Saturday’s stunning 34-30 loss at previously winless Navy.
Brace yourself, Knight Nation, coach Gus Malzahn’s inaugural season could be unexpectedly mediocre based on what happened Saturday when his injury-riddled team lost its second straight game after getting steamrollered by a Navy triple-option offense that ran for 348 yards, outgained UCF 406-326 and held the ball nearly twice as long as the Knights.
Although Navy was a 16½-point underdog, I can’t really say I’m shocked by this upset. In fact, I half-expected it. The Knights weren’t just playing without their star quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who is likely out for the season with a broken collarbone, but they were playing without their best running back (Isaiah Bowser), their best receiver (Jaylon Robinson) and their best linebacker (Tatum Bethune) as well as starting defensive lineman Ricky Barber and starting defensive back Corey Thornton.
“Bottom line, we didn’t get it done from a coaching standpoint,” Malzahn said. “It doesn’t matter who we didn’t have [available to play] or any of that, we just need to figure out a way to get better.”
Actually it does matter who you have available to play, especially when you’re starting a true freshman quarterback in Mikey Keene who needs all the help he can get. Give Keene credit for stepping in for Gabriel, one of the nation’s best signal-callers, and completing 16-of-26 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns and not making any crucial mistakes until his final desperation pass was intercepted in the end zone by Navy.
But the fact is he’s a true freshman and he’s not Gabriel, evidenced by the fact that five of UCF’s six possessions in the second half ended with three punts, a fumble and an interception. Moreover, the Knights were just 2-of-9 on third-down conversions.
UCF came into this game with the third-ranked offense in the country, averaging 553 yards per game, but by the time this one was over it was Navy’s offense that was dominant and looked like the Nebraska Cornhuskers — circa 1995. If you’re Malzahn, how can you not be concerned that Navy’s offense completed only two passes and still were able to come back from a double-digit deficit by scoring 17 fourth-quarter points.
And it’s not like UCF didn’t get some breaks. Navy fumbled twice inside its own 15, leading the way to two easy touchdowns by the Knights. Even so, it’s becoming increasingly clear that UCF’s defense is simply not good enough to weather a plethora of injuries.
Remember, this is a UCF defensive unit that was one of the worst in the country last season but appeared to be significantly improved with the addition of big-time pass-rushing Auburn transfer Big Kat Bryant and the return of defensive tackle Kalia Davis, who opted out last year. This is a defense that shut down Boise State in the second half and allowed the Broncos only 283 total yards.
However, all of that changed when the Knights played Louisville in their last game, had three defensive starters injured and now have a defense that looks eerily like last year’s unit. The Knights gave up 501 total yards (nearly 200 on the ground) in the loss against Louisville before Saturday’s defensive debacle against Navy.
As for Keene, he might have actually won this game if his supporting cast had done its job. Instead, UCF made critical mistakes on special teams (see a blocked punt Navy recovered for a touchdown and a shanked punt Navy turned into the game-winning touchdown). In addition, Navy’s game-winning drive was kept alive when Bryant jumped offside on 4th-and-2 deep in UCF territory.
Keene, however, did show impressive poise and may someday become a great QB for UCF but will have to endure some growing pains. And make no mistake about it, the Knights — like just about every other college football program — absolutely need great quarterback play if they expect to win and win big.
We’ve seen it throughout UCF’s history where the greatest moments have come because of the greatest quarterbacks — players such as Daunte Culpepper, Blake Bortles, McKenzie Milton and Gabriel. Yes, it takes more than a quarterback, as Gabriel has found out in his two-plus years as a starter and as Milton has learned since transferring to FSU, but without a really good quarterback, you can — as my Uncle Tony used to say — fuhgeddaboudit!
Former Knights coach Scott Frost was able to go 13-0 at UCF because he recruited a magical quarterback (Milton) out of Hawaii and Milton turned into one of the best QBs in college football. One of the main reasons Frost has struggled at Nebraska is because he hasn’t been able to recruit the right quarterback. Frost thought Adrian Martinez would be his Nebraska version of Milton, but Martinez simply hasn’t been able to take it to the next level.
And, frankly, Malzahn would probably still be coaching Auburn if not for the sporadic, subpar play of five-star recruit Bo Nix. Malzahn started Nix as a true freshman but he never completed more than 60 percent of his passes in the two seasons before Malzahn was fired. Nix was ultimately benched last week by new Auburn coach Bryan Harsin, but was back in the lineup Saturday for Auburn’s nail-biting victory over LSU.
We will see in the next few weeks how Mikey Keene progresses, but he’s going to need much more help than he received Saturday to get the Gus Bus back up and running.