Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Central Florida might not be a Power 5 team, but last season the Knights did something Missouri never could when it reached, and won, a Bowl Championship Series game.
It’s no surprise, then, the Tigers aren’t taking their third non-conference opponent of the season lightly.
“We’re playing a very, very good football team in Central Florida,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “Coach (George) O’Leary has done a great job with that program. He deserves a lot of credit. He’s a very, very good football coach. Very well-coached football team.”
The Tigers will try for 3-0 when they host UCF today at Faurot Field (11 a.m., SEC Network).
The Knights went 12-1 in 2013-14 and took down Baylor 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl. In the final year of the system, Central Florida reached a BCS bowl — something Missouri was never able to do despite close calls in 2007 and 2012.
But as tough a non-conference opponent as UCF is, Missouri isn’t spending too much time fretting over the Knights. Pinkel said he doesn’t mention the Tigers’ opponent to his team after Sunday night of each game week.
“You hear me say this, and it’s true: It’s all about how you play,” Pinkel said. “We respect who we’re playing, and I think our players have great respect (for UCF). … Then what you do is you focus on playing your best game.”
The Knights lost the lone game they’ve played this season, against Penn State in Dublin, Ireland. The Nitanny Lions won on a last-second field goal after driving 55 yards in the final 73 seconds.
UCF is dealing with the departures of quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson, both of whom stayed in the Sunshine State — the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Bortles in the first round and Johnson in the seventh. But while UCF fans can watch the duo on Sundays, they’ll miss Bortles’ 7,598 yards and Johnson’s 1,646 on Saturdays. Also gone are three all-conference linemen.
In Bortles’ stead is expected starter Justin Holman, who took over for Pete DiNovo in the second half against PSU and was 9-of-14 for 204 yards. Johnson’s shoes were mostly left unfilled in UCF’s first game, as the Knights accounted for only 24 total rushing yards.
UCF played up to its opponents last year, taking down Penn State and Louisville and nearly clipping South Carolina. The season is young, but the close games that went the Knights’ way in 2013 — one-score wins at Memphis and Temple, for example — have already swung once in the other direction.
Again, not that it matters to the Tigers.
“It’s not about how they play or where we play,” quarterback Maty Mauk said. “It’s how we play, and we know what we’ve got to do to win.”
What they’ve got to do is largely follow the blueprint from last week’s 49-24 road win over Toledo. Mauk was a big part of the victory, throwing for 325 yards and five touchdowns, both career highs.
The sophomore quarterback was named the Southeastern Conference offensive player of the year for last week, and he is currently one of only four quarterbacks in the nation with eight touchdown passes.
Mauk did have two interceptions, his first picks of the year.
“If I throw an interception, it’s not going to affect me,” he said. “Yeah, it sucks, but I’m going to bounce back, and I’m going to come out, and I’m going to go down and score. And that’s the main thing.”
Missouri’s defense, especially its defensive line play, has lived up to its billing so far. Toledo led the nation last year with 0.5 sacks allowed per game. The Tigers, who failed to register a sack against the Rockets in 2013, tallied three sacks last Saturday. Defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden accounted for all three. They each have three sacks on the year.
“They come off the corner, and they create a lot of problems for the quarterback,” Pinkel said. “All quarterbacks, when they have great protection are very good. But if you get some pressure on them, you change the whole position. Hopefully we continue to play good defense behind them. It’s not just the two of them.”
There are certainly things for the Missouri defense to improve upon. Namely, avoiding long runs. In Week One, South Dakota State’s Zach Zenner broke a 75-yard run for a touchdown, and last week Kareem Hunt had a 38-yard touchdown run. Both runs came up the middle and both tied the game at 7-7.
But Missouri isn’t as concerned with opposing runners as they are with themselves.
“We’ve gone over the film, and it’s our gaps,” defensive tackle Lucas Vincent said. “We’ve just got to get better at our gaps and our fundamentals of tackling and stay in our gaps, throwing off blocks.”
Long story short, the Tigers will be focused on themselves.
TAKE TWO: The Missouri and UCF football teams have faced each other only once before, in 2012. The Tigers pulled out a 21-16 win in Orlando. Marcus Murphy returned a punt return in the third quarter for a touchdown, and Missouri held the lead. Quarterback James Franklin completed a 80-yard catch-and-run touchdown to Dorial Green-Beckham.
“It was a very hot day down there on that Field Turf,” Pinkel recalled, “and that was a real close football game. … But, that’s a couple years ago. Teams are a lot different. We have a good portion of our players (who) aren’t playing anymore and same way with them, but we just have great respect for them.”
NOTES: Backup tailback Morgan Steward is listed as “out.” Steward has yet to play this season, and Pinkel thinks he could return in a few weeks. Some more depth chart changes: Junior strong-side safety Clarence Green is listed as a co-starter with Donavin Newson. Josh Augusta moves from backup nose guard to backup defensive tackle, switching spots with Harold Brantley. Taylor Chappell moved from right guard to left tackle.