Boise State Football: First Look at the UCF Knights
The Boise State Broncos and UCF Knights will clash in one of the Group of 5’s most important games of the year.
An epic game years in the making.
Boise State Football: First Looks at Non-Conference Opponents
The Boise State Broncos will open their 2021 season with one of the most hotly anticipated non-conference games in program history. It isn’t every day, after all, that the Group of 5’s gold standard has a chance to take down a program that aspires to be the next Boise State. Following back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl appearances in 2017 and 2018, how well prepared are the UCF Knights to rebound for what was, for them, a down year in 2020?
Location: Orlando, Florida
Conference: The American
2020 Record: 6-4 (5-3 AAC)
Head Coach: Gus Malzahn (first year, 77-38 overall). On the sidelines, UCF is entering a brand new era after former head coach Josh Heupel made the jump to Tennessee. Long recognized as an offensive innovator, Malzahn’s results at Auburn stagnated after a 10-win season in 2017 culminated in, coincidentally, a loss to UCF. By offensive SP+, Auburn fell from to 19th in 2018 to 34th and then 46th, and though the Tigers made another three bowls, they also never finished higher than third in SEC West and, even worse for the War Eagle faithful, he only beat Alabama three times in eight tries.
Malzahn isn’t the only new face on the coaching staff, however. G.J. Kinne bolted to Orlando from Todd Graham’s staff in Hawaii to become a co-offensive coordinator with Tim Harris Jr., who came from Florida International. On defense, Travis Williams followed Malzahn from the Plains while David Gibbs came in from Missouri. It’s a lot of turnover that will have to figure out what to do with an explosive offense and a volatile defense.
QB Dillon Gabriel
You’d be hard pressed to find a quarterback anywhere in the country that was a safer bet to create an explosive passing play on any given down than the junior from Hawaii. Among passers returning for 2021, Gabriel had more 20-yard and 40-yard passing plays than anyone else. In two years as a starter, he’s rolled up a 59.7% completion rate and averaged 8.9 yards per attempt, with 61 touchdowns, on over 800 passes.
Despite the big arm and a low 1.4% career interception rate, Gabriel has had occasional trouble in the past hanging on to the football and fumbles have put the defense in unenviable positions or killed scoring opportunities, which is a bit of good news for a deep Boise State defensive front that will have its hands full slowing him down.
WR Jaylon Robinson
Marlon Williams was UCF’s number one pass catcher in 2020, but Robinson wasn’t too far behind and figures to be on the shortlist of the Group of 5’s best at the position this year. After sitting out 2019 as a transfer from Oklahoma, the sophomore broke out with 55 catches, 979 yards and six touchdowns. He’s the primary option in an attack full of them.
Jaylon Robinson (#1) at the top of your screen is one helluva vertical threat for UCF. He does a good job here of stacking the DB, using hands to get further leverage, and then adjusting to the pass from Dillon Gabriel. #BlueChipSummer pic.twitter.com/kD1vSW7Zzd
— Nick Price (@PriceCheck3) June 9, 2021
C Matthew Lee
A good offense can sputter without solid protection up front and the Knights have one of the best young centers anywhere in the country. He played in four games during the 2019 season to maintain his redshirt, then earned first-team all-AAC honors in 2020 after playing in all ten games and anchoring a line which ranked 38th in sack rate allowed (5.1%), 23rd in stuff rate (14.6%), 20th in line yards per carry, 19th in opportunity rate, and fourth in power success rate.
S Derek Gainous
The UCF secondary will have to break in a few new starters, but none may be more important than Gainous. He saw playing time in every game last year and made four starts down the stretch, answering the bell capably with 46 tackles, one forced fumble and one interception. It may be a high standard to expect him to replace Richie Grant’s production entirely — Grant landed on multiple all-conference first teams in his time with the Knights — but he’ll be key to avoiding any substantial drop-off.
LB Eriq Gilyard
While it remains to be seen how a number of transfer on the defensive line will perform overall, linebacker seems to be on more solid footing thanks to Gilyard, who has anchored the middle of the Knights defense for the past two seasons. He’s raised his game in that time by becoming more and more of a disruptive force, too, collecting 59 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles.
Watching UCF on offense is a bit like riding a rollercoaster in that, under Scott Frost and Josh Heupel, it often felt like they played with reckless abandon. The Knights were happy to push tempo because they were confident their ball carriers could force opponents into mistakes and that was no exception in 2020, when they averaged 6.61 yards per play and scored at least 33 points eight times in ten games.
How Malzahn will differentiate from his predecessors remains to be seen, but it’s important to note that while Gabriel and Robinson are the headliners, they’re hardly alone as athletes who can hurt you. Last year’s running back tandem, Otis Anderson and Greg McRae, are gone, but Isaiah Bowser transferred in from Northwestern and RJ Harvey did the same from Virginia. Those two, along with senior Bentavious Thompson, figure to make for an imposing committee of runners.
In the passing game, it was actually Ryan O’Keefe who paced UCF in averaging 19.6 yards per catch, giving the Knights more than one option to beat defenses down the field. A trio of transfers — Nate Craig-Myers (Colorado State), Jordan Johnson (Notre Dame), and Brandon Johnson (Tennessee) — make this one of the deepest units anywhere in the country. No wonder, then, that UCF ranked 17th in preseason SP+. One way or another, Boise State will have a challenge on its hands.
To continue the rollercoaster analogy, while the offense could play at a breakneck speed and pull you to the edge of your seat, the 2020 UCF defense had a way of giving you that unpleasant feeling in your stomach from time to time. They forced 22 takeaways, which was good enough to tie for sixth among FBS teams, but they also coughed up 6.19 yards per play and finished 66th by defensive SP+. Their challenge in 2021 is to rebound while replacing a number of key contributors.
The biggest questions reside in the secondary, where Richie Grant, Tay Gowan and Aaron Robinson all heard their name called in the NFL Draft earlier this spring. Gainous could be the only senior in the defensive backfield and the Knights could find themselves relying on talented, but young contributors around him. Thankfully for the new coaching staff, Davonte Brown started five of the last six games in 2020 while Corey Thornton started the entire year, so the sophomore cornerback duo have already had at least some of their trials by fire.
Up front, meanwhile, the reversal of fortunes will depend on the contributions of some incoming transfers like Big Kat Bryant, who comes to Orlando from Auburn; Ricky Barber, a former Freshman All-American at Western Kentucky; and Bryson Armstrong, an FCS All-American mainstay at Kennesaw State. The hope is that they’ll enable the defense to bolster some of the areas they were left wanting last fall like third-down conversation rate (41.5% allowed, 88th in the FBS), red zone defense (33 touchdowns in 45 tries, 73.3%), and other more advanced measures where the Knights were no better than average.
The Broncos and their fans have certainly had this game circled on their calendar since it was scheduled and it’s not hyperbolic to suggest there’s a great deal at stake beyond simple bragging rights: The winner will get a much-needed edge in the hunt for the Group of 5’s New Year’s Six bowl bid.
It will come down to how well the Broncos can contain the powerful Knights offense and, barring any significant injuries in fall camp, they appear about as prepared as anyone to slow them down… but the key is to do so consistently, which is a lot more difficult. Malzahn’s offense might look different in some aspects, but the talent advantage (especially at wide receiver) seems likely to play the most significant role in UCF winning a shootout. They’re probably more than happy to do so. UCF 40, Boise State 31