Following Thanksgiving, the USF Bulls (9-1) will take the field for what could be their biggest game in program history against the UCF Knights (10-0).
On Friday the War on I-4 will feature two ranked teams for the first time, but there’s more on the line than just a 160-pound trophy. The winner of the matchup will become The American Athletic Conference East Division champion and will face the West Division winner, Memphis, in the title game on Saturday, Dec. 2.
But before looking towards the championship game, USF must look at the task at hand first: UCF.
The AAC’s Top Defense Is Ready To Stampede
The USF defense is poised to put on a show. Leading The American in total defense, rush defense, pass defense, scoring defense and more, the Bulls will look to stop the conference’s top scoring offense.
A big key in this matchup will be the defense. In 2016 the Bulls held UCF to win the War on I-4 and this year a noticeably better defense is ready to do the same thing. Under the guidance of head coach Charlie Strong and new defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary, the USF defense is playing fantastic ball.
“When the new (coaching staff) came in, we all spoke about what happened last year,” said senior safety Devin Abraham to USF Athletics. “Really during the spring, they just preached, and they gave us back our confidence. Guys are going out there having fun again. Guys are just doing what we’ve had to do to win ballgames.”
The Bulls rushing and passing defense will come in hand as they look to slow down UCF’s Adrian Killins Jr., who is one of the fastest players in college football right now.
And while many are looking at UCF’s run game, who averages 202.2 rushing yards per game, the Bulls will need to stop UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton as well. The sophomore quarterback has thrown 26 touchdown passes, heavily targeting NFL prospect Tre’Quan Smith (11 touchdowns, 850 yards).
The task is something that senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez is up for. Last week against Tulsa Sanchez became the Bulls’ all-time leading tackler with 368.
“As a defensive player, this is what you sign up for. You get a chance to go against arguably the best offense in the country,” Jean-Mary said to USF Athletics. “On defense, you have to play well to give your team a chance. Your competitive juices should start flowing as you get closer to game time because you know you’re in a position to help your team achieve something special.”
The Offense Will Look For A Lot Of Flower Power
USF enters Friday’s contest led by senior quarterback Quinton Flowers, who has already made a huge dent in USF record books by setting 22 different records and on the verge of breaking two more.
The Miami native needs just 96 more yards to break Matt Grothe’s USF total offense record of 10,875 yards. With a win over UCF, Flowers (29 wins) will match former quarterback Marquel Blackwell’s wins record of 30.
While UCF has to face a tough USF defense, the Bulls’ offense will also look to run through a difficult defense. Play calling will be a huge difference maker in this game as offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert will need to navigate USF’s run game through The American’s second-best total defense. Gilbert will need to have the next play in hand to get a quick snap for an up-tempo offense.
“They’ve played extremely well this year,” Gilbert said to USF Athletic about UCF’s defense. “You just look on the back end, the front end, the linebackers, they’re talented. They execute at a high level.”
While Flowers’ arm can be deadly, so can his legs. The quarterback enters the rival game with 870 rushing yards and 2,097 passing yards. Alongside the dual-threat quarterback, running backs D’Ernest Johnson and Darius Tice will be big playmakers.
Special Teams Need To Be Special
USF enters the contest with a special weapon. Kicker Emilio Nadelman leads The American in scoring with 103 points.
In what could potentially be a high-scoring game between two up-tempo offenses, special teams could be a deciding factor. USF will feel confident if relying on Nadelman to get points on the board.
However, USF needs to clean up any blocked kicks as those blocks will swing the momentum of a game quickly.