Sept. 25, 2009
By John Denton
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The question was barely finished before UCF safety Derrick Hallman offered up a stern and very serious response.
``Biggest game of the year,'' the junior safety stressed with no hesitation whatsoever in his voice.
There is little argument about the importance and mountainous magnitude of Saturday's game at East Carolina for the UCF Knights. With one loss in Conference USA's East Division already to Southern Miss, UCF can hardly afford another East Division loss, especially to a team like ECU that is expected to contend for the title.
UCF's goal before the season was to get back to the Conference USA title game, a landmark very much achievable because of the experience and depth the Knights have on the defensive side of the ball and the improvement made by the offense. Visions of 2007, when UCF captured the first C-USA title in school history, danced throughout the players heads, and Hallman could be forgiven this week if he peeked at his conference title ring for a bit of added motivation against East Carolina.
``This game is extremely important because we're already down one in the East, so we can't afford to lose any more games,'' said Hallman, who snagged UCF's first interception in last week's defeat of Buffalo. ``We just want to win the rest of our conference games and hope that Southern Miss loses a couple more games. We want to make it back to the conference championship because anything less than that is a failed season because that's our preseason goal.''
UCF (2-1) will have its work cut out on Saturday against East Carolina (1-2), which has beaten Appalachian State and lost close games to West Virginia and North Carolina. And East Carolina has dominated the rivalry with the Knights, winning seven of the eight all-time meetings. The Pirates won in Orlando in overtime last season and even beat UCF 52-38 in 2007 in a turnover-marred game.
But UCF enters this game riding the momentum of last Saturday's 16-0 second-half blanking of Buffalo that paved the way for a 23-17 victory. The Knights defense forced four turnovers and got to the quarterback three times, while quarterback Brett Hodges
, tailback Brynn Harvey
and wide outs Kamar Aiken
and Jamar Newsome
delivered in a big way for UCF's offense. Hodges, the fifth-year senior, completed all 10 of his second-half passes, while Harvey ran for two scores and Aiken and Newsome had several drive-sustaining catches for the Knights.
UCF's offense, namely its steadily improving offensive line, will be tested against a big, aggressive front seven from East Carolina. Defensive ends C.J. Wilson (278 pounds) and Scotty Robinson (271 pounds) and tackles Jay Ross (6-foot-3, 314) and Linval Joseph (6-6, 322) form a stout defensive line that will make it difficult for UCF to run the ball and protect Hodges in the pocket. But junior tackle Jah Reid said the Knights understand the importance of the game and difficulty of the task ahead.
``This is as big as it gets for us. If we want to win the conference, we need to win this game. It's crucial for us,'' Reid said. ``They're all must-wins here on out, so we really need it.''
Defensively, the Knights hope they can pressure sixth-year East Carolina quarterback Patrick Pinkney the same way they did against Buffalo last week. Senior defensive end Jarvis Geathers got to the quarterback three times, forcing two fumbles. That activity by the defensive line helped the UCF force some much-needed turnovers after a week of talking primarily about knocking the ball free.
``When those guys on the defensive line are getting pressure that just makes our job in the secondary so much easier,'' Hallman said. ``The turnovers come because of the way our front seven are playing.''
UCF coach George O'Leary hopes his team is playing its best football come Saturday. He has stressed the importance of winning this game to his players all week, knowing that a defeat of East Carolina before a sellout crowd will greatly enhance UCF's chances of staying in the hunt to win another Conference USA championship.
``Right now, we still control our own destiny within the conference. We do not want to be put into that position where we have to count on someone else losing once or twice,'' O'Leary said. ``I think our guys understand that very well, and understand our goal each year of winning the conference. To do that, we have to be able to win the division first, and cannot afford to suffer any more losses within the conference.''
John Denton's Knights Insider runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on UCFAthletics.com. E-mail John at email@example.com.