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Pitt heads into tough matchup with No. 13 Central Florida

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NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After a loss to North Carolina last weekend, things won’t get any easier for the Pitt football team. This week’s task is a contest against No. 13 ranked Central Florida.

Central Florida made waves last year, going undefeated and capping the season with a Peach Bowl win over No. 7 Auburn. Questions about their ability to defeat P5 programs went out the window with that game and, hosting the Panthers, you can bet that the Knights are even more of a favorite to win this weekend. I think there’s an inclination for some to still question UCF just as there was when Boise State first started making a name for itself. But make no mistake about it - if Pitt wins, it’s an upset.

It’s always intriguing to see what Pitt is going to produce in a given game and that’s especially so this week. With a win against the Tar Heels, the Panthers would enter here 3-1 and more people would be giving them a chance to pull off an upset. But while Pitt has won bigger games under head coach Pat Narduzzi, as I wrote over the weekend, the program is clearly trending downward since the end of 2016.

Narduzzi talked a bit about where his team is mentally in his weekly press conference. He said the bus ride home was silent and knows that the team took the loss seriously. I mean, I suppose there’s something to be said for that but I’m not sure how much it ultimately matters.

It’s hard to like Pitt coming into this game, obviously. They just faced a quarterback and a team that had been struggling and still gave up more than 300 passing yards last weekend. The secondary continued to have breakdowns and, in general, often looked lost. Now, they will face a Top 15 team that’s on a roll and actually playing well.

UCF has dominated its competition so far this year. That competition, though, is unproven, with wins coming against the likes of UConn, South Carolina State, and FAU. A good barometer was expected by this point as UCF was scheduled to face North Carolina on the road a few weeks ago. However, the hurricane that battered that state forced it to be canceled.

I think there are legitimate questions about UCF. But those questions are more about if they are an elite team and not simply a good one. We already know UCF is good. And talented. Plus, here’s the thing. They are going to be extremely motivated in this game.

With the North Carolina game canceled, Pitt now clearly represents the top non-conference team that UCF will face this year. The Panthers are the only P5 team on their schedule and, UCF is well aware that they need to make a statement if they have any shot at getting into the Playoff. Doing that is already going to be a long shot but a loss here ruins that possibility entirely for them and it’s either run the table or nothing. UCF will not only be looking to win, but win big. All of their wins this year have been blowouts and the Knights know that’s their best chance to influence voters. If UCF had bigger non-conference opponents, perhaps they overlook Pitt a little. That won’t be happening, though. The Panthers, quite certainly, are going to get their best shot.

UCF scores points. A lot of them, actually. They run an up-tempo offense that keeps guys moving and it’s hard to keep up. Though the competition has been meager, they’ve averaged the nice round number of 50 points per game winning by 20 or more each time out.

Things start with quarterback McKenzie Milton. While the Panthers saw a struggling quarterback last weekend, they certainly won’t on Saturday. Milton is averaging just shy of 300 passing yards per game and has 12 touchdowns to only three interceptions. He’s not only going to avoid mistakes but also throw the ball quite a bit. Safe to say, the secondary will have their work cut out for them.

Is this Oklahoma State from last year? I don’t think so but I’d be lying if I said that kind of result was entirely out of the question. With all of the talk about how Pitt looked against Penn State and last weekend against North Carolina, I’ve got to think they’ll come out and lay it all on the line here to keep things close. But if you think there’s no way Pitt can get blown out because your mind isn’t yet used to the idea that UCF is a good team, I’d suggest to you that you’re fooling yourself.

Their passing attack gets most of the credit but it, as you can probably imagine, opens things up for the ground game. UCF does a ton of damage there as well with plenty of guys in the mix. First, there’s Milton, who runs quite a bit and has three rushing touchdowns to his credit. Then, while there’s no one guy that does a ton of damage, UCF’s top seven rushing leaders (including Milton) all average more than five yards per carry. You shouldn’t need me to point out how astonishing that is.

How effective has their running game been? Well, most fans would argue that Pitt’s has been pretty decent this year but UCF actually averages about 70 rushing yards more than the Panthers per game.

If Pitt’s going to have a shot here it’s going to be keeping their own offense on the field. The defense can’t be out there too long, getting gassed and such. It’s going to be about Pitt’s offense avoiding three and outs, eating up clock, and keeping the defense on the sidelines. Sure, their offense is kind of suited for that kind of style when they’re running the ball effectively. But as we’ve seen, when Pitt has to throw, that’s where there’s less certainty.

I should add this isn’t strictly time of possession here. That stat, I’ve always felt, can be very misleading. If another team scores in a minute and you’ve got the ball for ten minutes but don’t come away with any points, that’s not really doing you any good. For example, take last year’s game against Oklahoma State. The Panthers actually won the time of possession battle by a few minutes but still managed to lose by 38 points.

All of that said, I do think it’s important for Pitt to keep the defense rested and their own offense on the field. If the offense eats up seven, eight minutes and doesn’t come away with any points, I’m not convinced that’s the worst thing in the world, as long as they aren’t coming up empty on every possession.

A lot of the focus this week is going to be about trying to slow down UCF’s offense. But Pitt’s own offense is under the microscope, too. The unit has scored a total of ten points in the second half this year and the chances of winning this weekend without a more productive final 30 minutes of the game are pretty slim.

Safe to say, Pitt will have its hands full on Saturday.

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