No. 22 UCF kicks off AAC slate against UConn

Field Level Media

September 24, 2019 at 8:11 pm.

After two consecutive weeks battling Power 5 conference opponents, UCF starts the business of defending its American Athletic Conference title.

The No. 22-ranked Knights (3-1) split games in the past two weeks — a big win over perennial Pac-12 power Stanford, followed by a heartbreaking loss against the ACC’s Pitt. They return home to East Division foe Connecticut at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando on Saturday night.

Considering the momentum swings, point runs and shocking ending last Saturday in Pittsburgh, second-year head coach Josh Heupel and his Knights must be eager to get back on the field. After being dominated in the game’s first 21 minutes, UCF scored the final 10 points of the first half, then notched the first 21 of the third quarter.

However, a trick play — a 3-yard pass from receiver Aaron Mathews to quarterback Kenny Pickett with 59 seconds left — resulted in a 35-34 loss, breaking the Knights’ 27-game regular-season winning streak.

“You can either descend from this and fall apart, or you can come together and grow together as a football team. This doesn’t define our 2019 journey,” Heupel said.

In Pittsburgh, the offense recorded at least 30 points for the 30th consecutive game. UCF had won 70 straight games when scoring at least 33 points, dating to 2007.

Freshman Dillon Gabriel, who passed for 338 yards on Saturday after a rough start, likely will get the nod again at quarterback on Saturday. Gabriel has completed 63 of 104 passes for 1,057 yards, with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.

But, considering UCF is favored by about 44 points, this game could provide a chance for sophomore Darriel Mack Jr. to see his first action of the season in his return from a broken ankle suffered in July.

The Huskies (1-2) have dropped two straight games after beating Wagner in the season opener, and the culprit has been a weak offense that is averaging 16.7 points per game, 125th out of 130 teams nationally.

Connecticut squeaked by Wagner, a Football Championship Subdivision team, 24-21. UConn’s backs tallied three rushing touchdowns, including one from Kevin Mensah, who rushed for a game-high 144 yards. But the offense also gave a touchdown back as senior quarterback Mike Beaudry tossed an interception that was returned for a score.

Against Indiana last Saturday, true freshman quarterback Jack Zergiotis struggled through his first road start. At one point he tried a left-handed flip pass out of desperation, but it was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

Zergiotis’ performance — 14 of 28 for 90 yards — in the 38-3 loss was a letdown after he passed for 275 yards two weeks ago in his debut against Illinois, which overcame an early 13-point deficit and rallied to beat the Huskies.

“My performance wasn’t what I needed it to be, and it wasn’t what the team needed from me,” Zergiotis said after the Indiana loss.

So far, UConn quarterbacks have thrown four interceptions — two returned for touchdowns — and no TD passes.

Mensah leads the rushing attack with 205 yards but is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry