The Halloween decorations were out in full force at TDECU Stadium. Houston painted its signature “UH” logo at midfield black, redesigned the end zone with spiderwebs, and entered its game in all black uniforms.
But the festive pageantry didn’t intimidate the UCF Knights, which handed the Cougars’ their first conference loss of the 2020 season in 44-21 fashion. Expected to be a high-scoring affair in Houston, the abundance of touchdowns didn’t make an appearance until the fourth quarter. But UCF’s explosive offense averaged nearly 12 yards per play, and the Houston defense was no match in the end.
“When you can just hand that thing off and just get explosive play after explosive play after explosive plays, everything works,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen. “They got their average offensively, they’ve been averaging about 700. It’s not like they just did this to us.”
The red zone was not kind to the Cougars. Houston came up with empty handed in its first two trips inside the 20-yard line. Quarterback Clayton Tune threw an interception to UCF inside linebacker Eriq Gilyard deep in Knights’ territory and Dalton Witherspoon missed the uprights on a 35-yard field goal attempt. Houston’s first offensive touchdown of the afternoon didn’t come until 6:16 remained in the third quarter. While that touchdown sliced the deficit to 23-13, missing the 2-point conversion kept the Knights with a comfortable cushion and the Cougars never inched within one possession in the second half.
“It’s not a problem of moving the ball and getting yards. I know we gotta finish drives,” Tune said. “We’ll watch the film, see what that takes, and work on it all week.”
Despite several personnel due to injuries throughout the course of the afternoon, UCF’s defense kicked it into a new gear by allowing a season-low 21 points to Houston. The defensive intensity amplified as Houston crossed midfield, and the Cougars punted times beyond their own 40-yard line.
“I thought it was our best defensive effort of the season,” UCF head coach Josh Heupel said. “I thought some young guys had an opportunity to step up.”
It wasn’t an ideal performance by Houston quarterback Clayton Tune, who broke his 3-game streak of 310 or more passing yards. The junior completed 21/41 passes and tossed two interceptions deep in UCF territory after throwing only two picks in his previous three outings.
“He was pretty average I think,” Holgorsen said. “He’s capable of playing better. I thought he did a good job of taking us out of bad situations and preventing some sacks, but I think their D-line got after us. When you do that to a quarterback, he tends to get rattled.”
Tune’s most trustworthy target, wide receiver Marquez Stevenson, suffered an apparent lower body injury in the first quarter and returned to the sidelines wearing street clothes. Without Stevenson’s laser-like speed, the deep ball was largely unavailable for Houston in Saturday’s loss.
“It hurts. He’s one of the most dynamic players in the country,” Holgorsen said. “The whole thing going into the game is about making plays when you’re without your top playmaker. Nobody cares about that, nobody’s gonna use that as an excuse. You gotta plug somebody else in there and you gotta play at a high level if you want to win in this conference.”
Facing a top five scoring offense in the country, Houston’s defense played with plenty of fire, especially up front with the defensive line. The Cougars bent many times, but rarely broke until the fourth quarter. On four separate UCF trips to the red zone, Houston held the Knights in check by limiting them to a field goal attempt.
But the most impressive part of the Houston defense was the duress it applied to quarterback Dillon Gabriel. The Cougars shattered the record for most sacks against UCF this year by dropping Gabriel six times. In the first quarter, defensive end Payton Turner sprinted around the edge to sack Gabriel and force a fumble. Outside linebacker Grant Stuard scooped up the loose ball and sprinted 34 yards to the end zone for the first touchdown of the afternoon.
Houston’s lead was short lived with the nation’s leading passer on the other side. Gabriel averaged over 435 passing yards per game entering Saturday’s contest and lit the Houston defense up with 328 yards. The Hawaii native’s deep ball was on point and he completed a 34-yard touchdown pass to Ryan O’Keefe to instantly regain the lead, 10-7. He found the speedy O’Keefe later in the afternoon on a 36-yard streak pattern to secure a 30-13 lead in the fourth quarter. With Tre Nixon, the No. 1 wide receiver entering the season, out for the Knights, O’Keefe’s emergence has given Gabriel another reliable deep threat.
“He’s just gotten better and better every single week,” Heupel said of O’Keefe. “He’s comfortable with the flow of the game and how it feels, our tempo, and seeing and recognizing coverages. His ability to play at a really high level with Tre going down has allowed us to continue to play in our four wide receiver sets.”
UCF nearly had three running backs churn out 100 yards. Otis Anderson led the unit with 170 yards on 16 carries, Greg McCrae added 107 on 16, and Bentavious Thompson rushed for 87 on eight attempts. All three halfbacks cashed in a rushing touchdown on a Cougars’ defense which allowed its most rushing yards (353) since its 2019 season finale loss to Navy.
“It wasn’t like they lined up and ran the ball down our throat or anything like that,” Stuard said. “It was mainly us just being over-aggressive on the pass, and probably 80 percent of their big plays were us not being lined up in time. We weren’t able to make them one-dimensional because we couldn’t get us lined up.”
Containing UCF’s high-speed offense was another challenge for Houston. The Knights regularly snap the ball as quickly as possible following a considerable gain, and Houston’s inability to challenge the tempo ultimately handed the Knights a massive victory.
“We felt like we were prepared for these guys,” Stuard said. “The only thing that was negative for us was their tempo and us just not getting lined up and communicating. If there wasn’t that, they might have had two touchdowns.”
Houston, very much alive in a competitive AAC race, aims to recoup on the road against an undefeated Cincinnati team that is pushing the boundaries of the College Football Playoff. The Cougars aim to recapture their offensive successes while hoping for a quick recovery for Stevenson.
“Everybody that wears UH on their chest needs to get better if we want to win football games,” Stuard said. “We feel like we can beat anybody we play. It’s just about us.”