ORLANDO, Fla. — Prior to last week’s matchup with BYU, UCF coach George O’Leary told his team that he thought the game could be a defining moment for the Knights senior class.
A come from behind, overtime victory later, the players say they feel like that prediction was more than accurate.
“We’ve had a lot of close games, and I feel like we’re starting to get it going,” senior free safety Brandon Alexander said. “It’s amazing how you see that we have a lot of people just getting together and rallying around each other.”
In the very next breath, Alexander also acknowledged that it is a long season. But with the non-conference schedule now out of the way, UCF (3-2, 1-0 American Athletic Conference) enters Saturday’s matchup with Tulane (2-4, 1-1) feeling as collectively focused as it has this season.
There’s plenty to protect for the defending American champs.
UCF is 9-0 in league games since the debut of the AAC last season. It has now won 10 straight regular season conference games, the fourth-longest active streak in the nation.
“As I watch Tulane on tape, I see progress each week,” Knights coach George O’Leary said. “The scores of some of the teams they’ve lost to — Duke, Rutgers, — they’re not indicative of some of the games. They’ve had some turnovers in the games, but they’re moving the ball on offense, and I think they’re defense is being very opportunistic.”
Who the Green Wave will play at quarterback is a mystery, however. Freshman Tanner Lee started the first five games of the season before injuring his right shoulder in a loss at Rutgers Sept. 27.
Senior Nick Montana started against Connecticut last week, tossing a touchdown pass, while the defense recorded three turnovers, a safety and allowed just 217 yards.
Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said Lee has been back throwing this week and that his progress would dictate if and how much he played. But Johnson insinuated he could mix things up even more.
“I don’t know who the best guy is for this one,” Johnson said. “This one is going to be a little different. UCF is going to come after you so we have to get Tanner ready, we have to get Montana ready and we have to get (sophomore) Devin Powell ready. It looked like Tanner could be the guy last week, but we have to be careful because this one here is going to be a little bit different breed.”
Here are some things to watch for in the matchup between the Green Wave and Knights:
CLOSE GAMES, NO PROBLEM: Eleven of the Knights’ last 16 games have been decided by seven or fewer points. But they’ve also done well in those games, with a record of 9-2.
DECENT DEFENSE: Tulane has struggled at times offensively, but does have a defense that has caused some trouble. The Green Wave defense ranks 64th in the FBS in total defense, allowing 389 yards per game. They are also sixth in the country in red zone defense, and have 10 players with at least half a sack.
TOUCHY QUARTERBACK: Knights quarterback Justin Holman was put on alert last week that continued consistency struggles could have meant him getting pulled in favor of backup Nick Patti. He had two interceptions, but rallied late, throwing for a career-best 326 yards and pair of scores. He continued working on his throwing touch this week and O’Leary says he likes his progress.
NO LUCK IN ORLANDO: Tulane earned its lone win in the series in 2006 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans when the Green Wave held UCF to three field goals and claimed a 10-9 victory.
FAMOUS FATHER: If the last name Montana brought up thoughts of a famous NFL quarterback, it’s for good reason. Tulane quarterback Nick Montana is the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer and four-time Super Bowl Champion Joe Montana.