(AP)—- Getting the chance to play a high-stakes conference game in front of a national television audience represents the latest in a line of big opportunities for Central Florida this season.
The 19th-ranked Knights (6-1, 3-0 American Athletic Conference) host Houston (7-1, 4-0) on Saturday night in a game that could put the Knights firmly in command for the AAC championship and an automatic spot in a BCS bowl.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Knights coach George O’Leary said. “Obviously, they’re undefeated in conference play. We’ve got to win the game to stay in first place in conference. That’s enough right there.
“Obviously, there are a lot of implications on that game as far as how the season’s going to sit with a lot of people. I doubt we have too many people rooting for us as far as within the conference.”
UCF is coming off a bye, just as it was when it went on the road and upset then-No. 8 Louisville 38-35 on Oct. 18 for its first victory over a top-10 team. And just like then, the Knights had the advantage of getting to watch their next opponent Houston beat South Florida 35-23 on Oct. 31.
“Yes, it’s a huge advantage,” UCF running back Storm Johnson said. “Then, we rest up on a bye week, too. It gets us real ready for a big game.”
Houston, which is averaging 41.1 points, is led by freshman quarterback John O’Korn. He has thrown 22 touchdown passes while being intercepted only four times. The Cougars are the only team in the nation to have scored in every single quarter this season.
The number that has really caught the Knights’ attention, however, comes on the defensive side of the ball. Houston leads the country with 29 takeaways.
“They’re aggressive,” Knights wide receiver J.J. Worton said. “They gang tackle and they don’t take plays off. They’re a good effort team. They all try to get to the ball. That’s why they’re leading the nation in turnovers.
“We know what we have to do. We have to protect the ball. We have to do what we know we can do and just be consistent at it.”
O’Leary said he has not only been stressing ball security, but he has been paying special attention to where the receivers and backs are carrying the ball. If a player is carrying it low and on the hip, and not carrying high and tight, he has to do two minutes of up-down drills.
“They do a great job of stripping the ball,” O’Leary said. “After the initial hit, they’re all coming in CPR - Club, Punch and Ripping at the ball. You’ve got to put a little extra emphasis on it because they put a lot of emphasis on takeaways.”
If my players “do two or four minutes of up-downs,” the coach said, “they get the message real quick as far as how you’re supposed to carry the ball.”
Houston coach Tony Levine believes most of the pressure for Saturday’s matchup comes from the teams’ previous history as Conference USA foes. UCF has taken three of four all-time meetings, winning 40-33 in Houston in the previous matchup Nov. 5, 2010.
“We’ve got great familiarity of each other, I think, going into this year,” Levine said. “That’s a program that certainly in Conference USA was at the top every season … and the thing about this team and this program in particular is they have a reputation of being extremely well-coached.”
While UCF’s players know what is at stake, they insist they will take the same approach into Saturday’s game as they have every time out this season.
“We’ve taken every game seriously,” Johnson said. “This is just the next game. We’re just going to take the same approach. Everybody’s fired up for it. It’s the next important game, so we’re going to be ready.”
Houston has a similar philosophy.
“Like coach Levine says every week, ‘we are going there to be 1-0 at the end of the week,’” running back Kenneth Farrow said. “… We are back to 0-0, and we have a team next week and we are going to try to be 1-0. That’s how we are taking it, week by week.”