- Time and date: Thursday, October 13 at 7:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN
- Location: FBC Mortgage Stadium (“The Bounce House”) — Orlando, FL
- Spread: UCF (-23)
- ESPN FPI: UCF has 96.9% chance to win
- All-time series: UCF leads, 7-2
- Last meeting: UCF 49, Temple 7 — October 30, 2021
- Current streak: UCF, 5 (2017-21)
Setting the scene
It’s the annual ‘Space Game’ at UCF. The Knights, rebranded under their former moniker Citronauts for this game, will break out space-themed uniforms for the sixth consecutive year to highlight the ties between the university and NASA’s space program.
While NASA prepares for the Artemis 1 launch scheduled next month, UCF aims to continue its launch into AAC championship contention. The 4-1 Knights host a 2-3 Temple squad in a primetime ESPN matchup at the Bounce House. For the Owls, it’s one last chance to stymie the Knights’ five-game win streak in the series while making a step in the right direction under first-year head coach Stan Drayton.
Temple Owls outlook
Temple is fresh off a much-needed bye week after suffering a lopsided 24-3 defeat to Memphis in its AAC opener. After facing a 30-0 shutout to Duke in the season premiere, the Owls elevated their defense to an impressive level for the next few weeks. They limited Rutgers to 16, shut out UMass, and held a high-powered Memphis offense to just 24 points.
While the defense has been a bright spot for the Owls in year one of the Stan Drayton era, establishing an offense is the next step. Temple ranks sixth-to-last in the FBS in points per game at 15.0, unable to reach the end zone in two of its five contests thus far. Igniting this offense starts with establishing a reliable ground game, which the Owls desperately need as AAC play enters full swing. Currently, they rank 125th nationally with 83.8 yards per game with a balanced backfield splitting carries between Edward Saydee and Darvon Hubbard.
Picking up more yards on initial downs through the run game is the definite fix to Temple’s third down woes, as their third downs are often coupled long yardage. The Owls converted just 2-of-16 third down attempts at Memphis, and this is another statistical category where they find themselves in the cellar — situated at 127th with a 26 percent conversion rate.
Consistently facing long down-and-distance situations hasn’t been ideal for breaking in a true freshman quarterback, but E.J. Warner has shown flashes of potential in his small sample size of opportunities. The son of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, E.J. took over the reins from Week 1 starter D’Wan Mathis and has completed 56.4 percent of attempts with 806 yards, five touchdowns, and six interceptions. Warner tossed three interceptions in the decisive loss to Memphis but his arm produced 245 of the team’s 297 offensive yardage that day, showing capabilities of sustaining drives. Experience is the best teacher, and the developing quarterback will likely dwindle such mistakes as he becomes more acclimated to the collegiate game.
One asset Warner has is the protection of a sturdy offensive line. Temple passes 30 times per game (the same exact as UCF) yet the Owls have yielded four sacks in five weeks. In terms of sacks allowed per game, Temple checks in at 10th nationally and tied for first in the AAC with a run-heavy Navy squad.
While the Owls have their offensive shortcomings to sort out, there is plenty to like about the defense under first-year defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot. Temple currently exhibits a No. 3 ranking in fewest passing yards allowed per game at 149. Against Memphis, the Owls secondary held their own by facing 45 passing attempts from quarterback Seth Henigan and watching 21 of them land incomplete. Redshirt freshman cornerback Jalen McMurray is a talent to watch in the secondary, demonstrating incredible concentration en route to a team-high six pass deflections this season.
Temple excels in countering the run, allowing the unit to become very multi-dimensional. Only 21 programs currently stifle opposing rushing attacks to a lower output than Temple’s 3.1 yards per carry. The Owls have created such a stellar defense with intense backfield pressure, especially from the linebackers.
Outside linebacker Layton Jordan lands in the top 10 nationally in tackles for loss per game, collecting eight backfield stops including 4.5 sacks on the year. Meanwhile, inside backer Jordan Magee contributes to this facet as well with 3.0 sacks and seven tackles for loss. Overall, Temple is fourth in the FBS in team tackles for loss, which could present an ideal matchup against a UCF team which routinely attempts reverses, zone reads, and other complex rushing plays behind the line of scrimmage.
UCF Knights outlook
Remember the Scott Frost and Josh Heupel eras, when UCF’s identity was based on fielding dominant, up-tempo offenses? In a turn of events, Knights instead rebranded into a defensive power in the Gus Malzahn era. This turnaround started brewing in the latter half of 2021 when the Knights limited six of their final seven opponents to 17 points or fewer. That defensive prowess seamlessly translated into 2022, and Louisville’s 20 points are the maximum allowed by UCF’s razor-sharp defense through five games.
The Knights ranked 12th nationally with their 14.6 points per game scoring defense. While UCF presents a solid run defense (59th in FBS) and respectable pass defense (45th in FBS), defensive coordinator Travis Williams’ unit has one specialty which ranks first in the country — red zone defense. Opponents have taken 19 trips inside the red zone this year, but UCF has generated 10 stops while yielding just four touchdowns and five field goals.
The Knights’ defense left a high-powered SMU offense discombobulated last Wednesday night in a 41-19 decision — shutting the Mustangs out in the second half until the final play of the night. The defensive prowess starts up front, where Tre’Mon Morris-Brash has become one of the chief disruptors in the AAC. Morris-Brash leads all Knights with 3.0 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, and a pair of fumble recoveries, and he’ll be called upon to spark a pass rush against the AAC’s most sturdy offensive line.
Maybe the most impressive part of UCF’s defense is how well the secondary has performed without relying on interceptions. The Knights have picked off just two passes this year, finding a more sustainable way to get stops than banking on high turnover outputs. Strong safety Divaad Wilson and nickelback Justin Hodges have allowed UCF to thrive in zone, while Corey Thornton has been lockdown on the boundary with a team-high five pass breakups.
Offense is the area where UCF has been more inconsistent, but perhaps Malzahn’s crew found a replicable rhythm in the second half last Wednesday. Trailing 13-10 going into the break, a different version of John Rhys Plumlee was unleashed which contributed to the 41-19 result. One week after an 8-of-16 showing for 49 yards, Plumlee rebounded to complete 20-of-29 passes for 316 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The quarterback has been more renowned for his mobility this year with three 100-yard rushing games under his belt, but the crafty runner also has a trio of 300-yard passing performances as well.
The Knights’ offense utilizes a series of motions, jet sweeps, and other eye candy to give itself a guise of a triple option at times. This has created a high-powered run game which ranks fourth in the FBS in yards per contest, only trailing triple option based service academies Air Force and Army, in addition to Alabama. Plumlee is a focal point as the team’s leading rusher, but the Knights also utilize a versatile backfield with bruiser Isaiah Bowser (seventh in FBS with eight rushing touchdowns) and speed backs Johnny Richardson and RJ Harvey.
But the run game would be incomplete without the contributions of wide receiver Ryan O’Keefe, who has become a staple on Malzahn’s frequented jet sweeps. O’Keefe tore up Florida on this play last year in the Gasparilla Bowl and he bolted 58 yards for a touchdown on one last week. O’Keefe also doubles as the team’s premier deep threat, where he forms a viable pairing with Alabama transfer Javon Baker. Baker leads the team with 395 receiving yards and enters Thursday looking to build on his career-high 138-yard outing from the prior week.
This matchup features two of the AAC’s stronger defenses converging on one gridiron. Temple quietly fields a top 20 scoring defense, ranking just below UCF in points allowed per game. The Owls’ soundness on the defensive side, especially in limiting the run game, could give UCF challenges early on. But there is a clear disparity in offensive firepower which gives a considerable advantage to Gus Malzahn’s team which is fresh off its third 40+ point game of the season.
As the Knights’ typically stout defense prevents the Owls’ offense from enjoying sustained possessions, expect UCF to win the field position battle and pull away in the second half. UCF proved to be a second half team in its three FBS wins over Florida Atlantic, Georgia Tech, and SMU, so the Knights should finish strong and emerge victorious at the Bounce House, which they have done in all but three home game since 2017.
Prediction: UCF 34, Temple 10