Central Florida Knights at The Ohio State Buckeyes
Thomas Wolfe's "You Can't Home Again" explored the premise that a time and place is frozen forever exclusively in a memory, and that no matter how romanticized they become -- regardless of just how high the pedestal - the actuality of the physical nature and the variables effecting it can never live up to its unrealistically idealized version. Urban Meyer attempted to disprove the now cliché; returning to a place he remembers being young and in love, both with a blushing bride and a game he was absorbing at a sponge like rate of water absorption. He went back to that same geographic location, with although many years and new experiences for both parties having come and gone between them, but likely one that still maintained a semblance of the same place he'd kept buried away in the depths of his subconscious for all this time.
While realistically Wolfe's thesis probably proved true yet again, and though Meyer may not be at exactly the same place he was some 25+ years ago, the process has begun for he to begin establishing the roots for what can become an entirely new self contained definition of what home is. He's done that job he spent so many years painting a rosy picture of, and the results weren't far removed from some of the better days in Meyer's own respectively storied past. With an entire offseason, game week of preparation, and the contest itself to his name, Meyer can now get back to what drives basically every coach out there to put themselves through the grind and rigor that they do week in, week out: doing it all over again.
Of course, this isn't Urban Meyer's first rodeo, nor is it his first time suiting up specifically against the University of Central Florida. Meyer last saw George O'Leary and his Knights in the fall of 2006. In a game that was also in that team's respective second week, Meyer saw a moderately slow start by the Gators take on new life when Percy Harvin found himself on the receiving end of a Chris Leak throw and did the rest, taking the ball 58 yards to pay dirt a little more than half way through the first quarter. Florida would then score four more times in the second quarter, including playing the same card as noted football philanthropists Chip Kelly and Lane Kiffin by going for two following the Gators' second touchdown.
Though the end result of the season that was after the last time Urban Meyer went toe to toe with George O'Leary is impossible to replicate, that doesn't mean the outcome of the singular game is an impossible goal. Meyer's Gators left Ben Hill Griffin Stadium victorious, 42-0, that Saturday in September. Urban's Buckeyes aim to do the same thing, though much like attempting to go home, is far harder than simply physically trying to force the issue.
Sophomore Blake Bortles is unquestionably the field general for a Knights team that noted college football oracle Phil Steele projected to finish the season at the best non-BCS conference team in America and strongly contend for an at-large berth in one of the sport's postseason's biggest games. Bortles outpaced talented Missouri transfer Tyler Gabbert (who famously left Missouri after losing out to now starting quarterback James, transferred to Louisville, decided it wasn't for him after just two weeks, tried to transfer back to Missouri but was rebuffed and settled in Orlando) this past summer and made his first start as the Knights' signal caller in Akron last Thursday night. For those surprised that starting quarterbacks at an FBS school can make this sort of thing happen, he also evidently keeps attractive company.
Bortles fell into the starting roll after last season (and 2010 for that matter)'s starter, Jeff Godfrey, somewhat surprisingly departed the Central Florida program. Perhaps the writing was on the wall, but Godfrey was also often being shown the pine lat season in favor of the redshirt freshman Bortles both whenever the offense got stagnant and at times seemingly arbitrarily. Godfrey, after a Gabbert-ian transfer drama of his own, ultimately returned to the Knights, but with the understanding that he'd be moved to wide receiver on a permanent basis. With Bortles now unquestionably the guy under center, he completed 13/16 passes for 168 yards, 3 TDs, and an interception in UCF's 56-14 week one win over Akron.
UCF shows a mixed look, switching between a shotgun spread-lite passing attack and a far more traditional NFL style offense. As is the case with multiple offenses that incorporate the latter, this is largely due to their stout running game. To the delight of Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel alike, the Knights' most prolific rusher, Latavius Murray, is unexpected to play against the Buckeyes due to a shoulder injury. Against Terry Bowden and Chuck Amato's Zips, Murray had rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown on just 14 carries before being rendered incapicitated. In his stead will be almost equally capable Storm Johnson. Johnson, a one time four-star recruit for the Miami Hurricanes, had his fair share of explosive plays for the 'Canes before being burried on the depth chart and transferring to UCF. Senior Brynn Harvey, who rushed for 180 yards against Marshall in 2011, and freshman Cedric Thompson, who added 44 yards and a TD against Akron, will join in the effort to test an Ohio State interior line that didn't see much similar action a week prior.
Joining Godfrey at wide receiver (where he was responsible for an 8 yard end around and also caught a Stoneburner-esque two balls for 13 yards a week prior) are senior Quincy McDuffie (43 catches a year ago for 482 yards and 3 for 47 a week prior), and another former quarterback, Rob Calabrese, who missed all of 2011 with an injury, but at 6-2, 216 can make an impact in the Knights' vertical passing game. The group is a whole is one of Central Florida's sketchier in terms of prospective reliability, but if Ohio State's front seven are able to eat up the three headed monster of Johnson, Harvey, and Thompson, they'll quickly become essential to whatever success the Knights have moving the ball down the field.
UCF is experienced across the offensive line with sophomore tackle Torrian Wilson, senior guard Theo Goins and fellow elder statesman center Jordan Rae, and junior brothers guard Jordan and tackle Justin McCray leading the efforts. Georgia Tech transfer (which you know equates to offensive line competency) Phil Smith adds to the depth at tackle. Former tackle turned Chris Martin showed that every teardrop throw leads to a waterfall of points last week against the Zips.
Despite a strong defensive coordination background of his own (O'Leary coordinated the 1990 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to a surprising national title and later improved the Minnesota Vikings from 30th in total defense to 10th in a single season), George O'Leary essentially overhauled his entire defensive staff this past offseason. Defesnive coordinator John Skladany was cut loose, replaced (comedically mind you) briefly by now Penn State coordinated Ted Roof, and then ultimately by (it all comes full circle) former Akron DC Jim Fleming. Adding to the mystery on paper was that UCF was 9th nationally in total defense in 2011 and 9th as well in scoring D. A deeper dive statistically, however, revealed that after a strong start, that once stodgy defense struggled to get opposing offenses off the field. SMU and UAB combined to complete 70% of their passes for almost 700 yards. Adding to the chaos, UCF would eventually yield over 500 total yards to Southern Miss and over 250 rushing yards to Tulsa.
None the less, the Knights return a Big Ten-ish front line and a competent in their own right secondary in 2012. Versatile fleet footed d-lineman Victor Gray pairs with the awesomely named nose tackle, Jose Jose, junior E.J. Dunston, and senior DE Troy Davis (29 tackles, 8.5 for a loss, and 5 sacks in '11) to form the crux of the defensive line. UCF's second level, on the other hand, might be the relatively weakest unit on either side of the ball. Redshirt junior Ray Shipman, with just four career starts to his name, is flanked by sophomore Terrance Plummer and their most experienced LB, Jonathan Davis. The Knights will need the group to elevate their games if they want to survive the barrage Braxton Miler, Carlos Hyde, Zach Boren, and Bri'onte Dunn will be unleashing for the majority of Saturday afternoon. If the nearly 60% chance for rain holds up, the Knights might find their need to worry about stopping the pass and the run simplified at their behest.
The aforementioned forceful secondary returns both of its starting safeties including 2011's leaidng tackler Kemal Ishmael and sophomore Clayton Geathers. A.J. Bouye, the Knights's second best defensive back in the first seven games of 2011, returns from injury along with his understudy turned injury replacement, Brandon Alexander, and the likely starter opposite Bouye, sophomore Jordan Ozerities. Even with their inability to force opponents into passing downs much a year prior, when they did, UCF ranked amongst the top of Conference USA at pass defense. If the same humidity that seemed to cause slips and incompletions rears its ugly head again this Saturday (or is replaced by even less manageable rain), any number of the UCF defensive backs could make plays to put their offense in position to work with a short field. Given their preference to leverage the run to set up the pass, this could give them their best chance to put up points in Ohio Stadium on Saturday.
George O'Leary took an 0-11 MAC team in 2004 and in his second year at the helm of the (then Golden) Knights went 8-5, winning the CUSA East. That marked the biggest such turn around in FBS that year. Though the Knights fell apart last fall and wound up 5-7, there were still many thinking a more modest but perhaps amply (see: BCS bowl) impressive turnaround could be on the horizon for UCF. WIth a cloud of unknown (the Knights still await the NCAA's final ruling to their presently stayed injunction prohibiting them from the post season) hanging over the program as a whole in an athletic department no stranger to it, similar to the challenge facing Urban Meyer across the field, George O'Leary and co. will have to do everything in their collective powers to make their team focus exclusively on Saturday's game with no regard for what happens in December or beyond. Will it be enough to hang with a 13.5 point home favorite? That remains to be seen.
PREDICTION: Holy Diver – UCF will keep things interesting, maybe even for more than two quarters, but Ohio State's superior athleticism and running game will take advantage of a suspect second wave of defense and lead the Buckeyes to a closer than the score indicates but comfortable win.
Ohio State 27 - UCF 10