Talented QBs clash as East Carolina hosts No. 14 UCF

Field Level Media

September 23, 2020 at 10:12 pm.

UCF has had plenty of success lately, and quarterback Dillon Gabriel is a large part of the winning formula.

After a strong season-opening win at Georgia Tech, the sophomore signal-caller leads the No. 13 Knights (1-0) on the road again Saturday to Greenville, N.C., where the East Carolina Pirates will kick off their season with an American Athletic Conference clash.

Gabriel passed for a career-high 417 yards and four touchdowns in last weekend’s 49-21 road win over the Yellow Jackets, who had been riding the momentum of a season-opening upset at Florida State.

“You saw what happened last week,” chided Gabriel, whose previous best was 365 yards against ECU last year. “I guess you can say we’re the best team in Florida.”

UCF has won 36 of 40 contests since 2017, and the last 13 games with Gabriel at the helm have been stout. Last year the left-handed Hawaiian threw for a freshman-record 3,653 yards as the Knights went 10-3 and 6-2 in the AAC.

“From where he started a year ago, his comfort level and understanding how to play the game, when it’s the right time … He finished the season that way,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said of Gabriel. “He started Week 1 further ahead than he ended last season.”

The Orlando team, which lost three road games by a total of seven points last year, had a pair of injuries at important positions Saturday as top wide receiver Tre Nixon and running back Greg McCrae were hurt.

Replacing NFL receiver Gabriel Davis as the No. 1 wideout, Nixon was injured while hauling in his second TD pass, and senior rusher McCrae suffered a lower-leg injury.

Heupel offered no update Monday on Nixon, but receivers Marlon Williams and Jaylon Robinson stepped up big in place of Nixon after Georgia Tech cut it to 28-21 early in the fourth quarter.

Williams — second with 51 receptions and third in receiving yards last year — tallied a career-high in catches (10) and yards (154) and had two scores. Robinson, a transfer from Oklahoma, also set career marks with six catches and 105 yards.

True freshman defensive end Josh Celiscar forced a fumble and pounced on it on his first career play, and later added an interception. Linemate Noah Hancock blocked a field goal.

ECU struggled to a 4-8 mark overall (1-7 AAC) last season, and second-year coach Mike Houston will look to build upon a dynamic signal-caller in junior Holton Ahlers and an offense that sizzled at the end of 2019.

Already with one 300-yard passing game — Ahlers produced 313 at UCF in last year’s 41-28 loss last October — he dissected Cincinnati’s potent defense in a 535-yard, four-TD performance in November’s first game and passed for 498 yards and six scores in a 59-51 loss at SMU a week later.

Ahlers completed 264 of 442 passes for 3,387 yards and 21 touchdowns. He connected on just 59.7 percent of his throws and had 10 interceptions but was also the second-leading rusher with 359 yards and six touchdowns.

Houston said his group is anxious to get that first big win — and beating the Knights would fit the bill.

“You always remember that first signature win,” said Houston, whose victories in 2019 were over Gardner-Webb, William & Mary, Old Dominion and Connecticut. “That first big win that validates what you’re doing. It’ll come. I don’t know when it’s going to come. I’d love for it to be (Saturday).”