Time and Date: Saturday, October 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Bounce House — Orlando, FL
Spread: UCF (-21.5)
ESPN FPI: UCF 90.8% chance to win
All-time series: Tulsa leads 8-3
Last meeting: Tulsa 34, UCF 31 — November 8, 2019
If there’s one program in the country which seems to have UCF’s number, it’s Tulsa. Tulsa has won three-straight over the Knights and seven of the last eight. The two programs have only played once since UCF’s reign of dominance from 2017 to present, but the Golden Hurricane pulled off their biggest upset of the last decade on a chilly night in the plains last November.
But this time around, Tulsa doesn’t have the luxury of hosting the No. 11 Knights at Chapman Stadium. Instead, the Golden Hurricane must endure the opponent’s home opener at one of the toughest venues to play in college football — The Bounce House. Only Clemson holds a longer winning streak at home than the 21 consecutive games UCF has won in Orlando, a stretch of success dating back to the opening week of the 2017 season. The atmosphere on Saturday will restricted to 25% of normal capacity, which certainly changes the aura of the venue.
Assessing Tulsa’s opening performance
Due to a cancelation of last Saturday’s game at Arkansas State due to COVID-19 related issues within the Red Wolves’ program, Tulsa only has one game in the books. The Golden Hurricane’s only data point is a 16-7 loss at Oklahoma State, which produced mixed results.
While Tulsa was expected to potentially engage in a shootout with the Cowboys, the exact opposite transpired. The Golden Hurricane limited Oklahoma State’s dynamic offense to just one fourth quarter touchdown, and their defense controlled the line of scrimmage for most of the afternoon in Stillwater. Tulsa stifled Chuba Hubbard, the 2019 FBS rushing leader, to 3.4 yards per attempt and won the turnover battle — a vast improvement from the 2019 defense.
But the offense produced an array of question marks after a 7-point performance. Tulsa couldn’t manage to move the sticks on a single third down attempt, faring 0/12 in that regard. Compared to their usual numbers, the Golden Hurricane had a lackluster passing performance with only 165 yards from Zach Smith. He did deliver Tulsa’s only touchdown of the season, a 16-yard pass to wide receiver Josh Johnson in the back of the end zone, and the Golden Hurricane should increase the number of passing plays to allow Smith to enter a rhythm when he goes head-to-head with Dillon Gabriel in the Bounce House.
But the dagger which ultimately cursed Tulsa in the loss was penalties. Tulsa led the country in this department a season ago, and the undesirable trend is continuing. The Golden Hurricane registered 15 penalties for 120 yards in Week 1, including a false start which negated their go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
If there was a promising sign on offense, it was that the rushing attack looked strong even after starting halfback Shamari Brooks tore his ACL days prior to kickoff. Deneric Prince took over the primary rushing duties and impressed with 82 yards on 14 carries. Additionally, Tulsa allowed approximately three sacks per game last season and yielded just one to Oklahoma State in the opener, so the offensive line is already looking improved for 2020.
What went right for Tulsa last November
What’s most impressive about Tulsa’s win last November is it played most of the game from behind and still won. The Golden Hurricane trailed 28-17 at halftime but held the Knights to one lone field goal in the second half while heating up offensively. Tulsa characteristically played its toughest competition well in the first halves of last season before ultimately folding in the fourth quarter, so a reversal of fortunate was promising to see from a Golden Hurricane standpoint. However, that trend of playing ahead for most of the game and coming up short reverberated again in 2020 in the opener against Oklahoma State.
Most importantly, Tulsa decisively won the turnover battle 3-0 over UCF in the upset. All three of those takeaways transpired in the second half, and the Golden Hurricane were able to exchange them for 10 points. Two of those turnovers were Dillon Gabriel interceptions, and Tulsa did better than any other team at pressuring the quarterback in his freshman season. The Golden Hurricane blitzed frequently and finished the night with six sacks, with the wealth spread evenly across the defense.
While Tulsa mainly played from behind, the Golden Hurricane established their upset hopes against the Knights last season simply by scoring first. Both of UCF’s opponents this season — Georgia Tech and East Carolina — have scored on the opening drive and claimed a 7-0 lead against the Knights this season. It is imperative the Golden Hurricane strike early against a UCF team which typically lays down the hammer in the second quarter (38-7 advantage in second quarters this season), or else Gabriel and company will open up the field and flip things around in an instant.
What went wrong for UCF last November
UCF outgained Tulsa by over 100 yards on the road last November and still lost. The Knights unquestionably fielded the better offense in the game, but they were plagued all night by egregious mistakes. UCF failed to stave off the Tulsa pass rush, and the Knights must avoid letting Tulsa control the line of scrimmage in the rematch. The Knights’ best lineman, senior guard Parker Boudreaux, has yet to play this season due to spending time in concussion protocol. If Boudreaux is unable to play for UCF, that will be a huge loss. Although the Knights have only surrendered two sacks this season, Tulsa registered six on Oklahoma State’s quarterbacks in Week 3.
Tulsa outside linebacker Zaven Collins led the team with three sacks and four tackles for loss in Stillwater and was perhaps responsible for the turning point last November. While playing contain, Collins charged full speed for an early third quarter sack to force UCF into a third-and-long situation. The following play, Tulsa loaded up on defensive backs in deep zone coverage and picked off a pass from Gabriel — a turnover which led to a touchdown.
Gabriel, an early-season Heisman candidate, is vastly improved from that Friday night in Oklahoma a season ago. He struggled with interceptions in road environments as a true freshman. Gabriel didn’t throw a single interception in UCF’s 10 victories but threw seven passes into defenders’ hands in the Knights’ three road losses. But his confidence has sharply improved and his only interception in two road games this season was due to a missed a block altering the trajectory of the throw.
Two more things that prevented UCF from beating Tulsa last November were the failure to establish the run in the second half and committing too many penalties. Penalties are usually a Tulsa-centric issue, but the Knights had 15 flags for 120 yards last year, including an errant 12 men on the field penalty during a critical fourth down stop. The Golden Hurricane remained disciplined drawing just five yellow flags in the victory, and they’ll need that same level of focus to translate to Saturday in order to put the Knights on upset alert.
Matchups to watch
- Zaven Collins vs. everybody: This was the spectacle of the afternoon when Oklahoma State played Tulsa. The outside linebacker recorded three sacks and four tackles for loss, appearing to be the best player in a game which involved All-American running back Chuba Hubbard and All-American wide receiver Tylan Wallace. Collins will be Tulsa’s primary run stopper Saturday night against quick-footed running back Greg McCrae and he’ll also be charged with containing Gabriel on the outsides — as the sophomore quarterback has shown an improved ability to scramble out of the pocket this season. Collins’ execution will go a long way in determining if Tulsa can dominate on the defensive side again after limiting Oklahoma State to just one touchdown.
- Allie Green IV & Akayleb Evans vs. Marlon Williams & Jaylon Robinson: Green had the toughest assignment in college football in Week 3 against Tylan Wallace, arguably the best route runner in the FBS. Still, Green held his ground limiting Wallace to four receptions while recording his first career interception. The physical 6’3” cornerback will likely match up against UCF’s equally physical red zone threat Marlon Williams. Williams leads the Knights with 290 yards and two touchdowns this season and Gabriel likes to work with him near the sidelines. That leaves breakout receiver Jaylon Robinson as Akayleb Evans’ likely assignment. Robinson, a transfer from Oklahoma, has two 100-yard games this season and burned East Carolina’s secondary with 150 yards and two touchdowns a week ago. Evans enters the game with eight-career pass breakups and was instrumental in blanketing Oklahoma State’s non-Wallace receivers (44 total receiving yards) in Week 3.
- Tulsa vs. UCF’s ball mongering defense: UCF’s defense hasn’t been the best at forcing third down stops this season. Georgia Tech went 7/15, East Carolina went 9/18. But the Knights are hungry for turnovers and extremely aggressive with their punches and rips on defense. Tulsa’s ball carriers, especially running back Deneric Prince, have to be wary of this. The Knights have won the turnover battle 9-2 through two games this season while forcing three fumbles in each contest. Prince will have to be the textbook example of ball security for Tulsa to establish its offense. Runs outside the tackles are where he should produce best Saturday, and he hopes for a follow-up performance similar to his 5.9-yards per carry showing at Oklahoma State.
It’s very hard to pick against UCF in the Bounce House, even if it’s a 25% crowd.
Tulsa has an extra week of rest after the cancelation of the Arkansas State game, and we would have a better sense of the Golden Hurricane’s true identity in 2020 if that game was played. But even after shutting down the Oklahoma State offense on the road, UCF’s offense should continue to roll.
One aspect UCF presents differently from Oklahoma State is a quarterback who often delivers downfield. Josh Heupel isn’t afraid to take deep shots on nearly every drive, and with Dillon Gabriel’s pinpoint accuracy, those plays usually seem to work out in the Knights’ favor. Additionally, the Knights present two additional challenges Tulsa’s defense has yet to encounter this season — a ridiculously high-tempo offense and extreme separation of the wideouts from the line of scrimmage, which makes zone defense more difficult to play and encourages more one-on-one opportunities. Tulsa’s cornerbacks are more than capable of stepping up to the challenge though, and the Knights must be wary of the 6’3” Allie Green IV and 6’2” Akayleb Evans on 50-50 balls.
On the other side of the field, Tulsa’s offense won’t exactly match UCF in yardage — just like last November — but the Golden Hurricane can keep this close by playing smart football. Not committing turnovers is an excellent start, and keeping a versatile offense showcasing Zach Smith’s passing ability and Deneric Prince in the backfield is important to show UCF’s defense varying looks.
Tulsa may be able to cover the spread in Orlando, but the Knights are finally ending the three-game losing streak to their primary disruptor this Saturday.
Prediction: UCF 45, Tulsa 27