UCF has not fallen short of expectations for its terrific defense, and the Knights proved it on national television last night.
Behind an aggressive, attacking unit, the Knights returned a fumble and an interception for touchdowns, and harassed quarterbacks Bryan Ellis and David Isabelle in an impressive 42-7 victory. UAB (1-4, 0-2) had been close in its four other games this season -- three of them came down to the final play. But this game was essentially over at halftime for the Blazers.
"Anytime you can score on defense it's a major plus, a lot of hard work paid off," UCF coach George O'Leary said in quite the understatement.
The Knights (3-2, 1-0) came into the game with the No. 1-ranked defense and No. 1 scoring defense in Conference USA. They needed a big win after coming just short on the road at Kansas State. They led the entire way until the Wildcats scored in the final minute to win. The team held a players-only meeting to remind everyone there was still the entire conference slate yet to play, and one heartbreaking loss should not ruin a season.
The defense clearly took that to heart, and if you had to give out one helmet sticker, it would go to safety Kemal Ishmael. He intercepted Ellis on the first drive of the game, returning the ball down to the UAB 23-yard line. That led to Ronnie Weaver scoring on a 4-yard run for the first score of the night.
Then in the third quarter, Ishmael stripped Isabelle after a run, and Josh Robinson returned the fumble 56 yards for a touchdown to make it 28-0. Ishmael finished second on the team with seven total tackles.
"He doesn't get the headlines other guys get but if I was drafting a team he would be one of the first guys I'd take," O'Leary said. "He can do a lot of things, run and pass, and makes a lot of key tackles in situations. He's a very good football player and is just being recognized on how well he's playing."
The final defensive score came when Ellis made a terrible mistake. In danger of being sacked, he lofted the ball high in the air while he was falling backward. Troy Davis was there to pick the ball off and score to make it 42-7. Ellis went 14-of-30 for 149 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, after two straight 300-yard performances.
"They outplayed us," UAB coach Neil Callaway said. "They out-coached us. They did everything better than we did. We weren't ready to play and that is my fault."
After the impressive win for UCF, it is safe to say the race for the Eastern Division in Conference USA should come down to the Knights and Southern Miss. Sorry, East Carolina. That defense is just not good enough yet, and injuries on the defensive front hurt. East Carolina travels to Southern Miss this weekend in an important division game. Southern Miss plays at UCF on Nov. 13.