UCF's success in 2020 hinged on the development of quarterback Dillon Gabriel. The rising sophomore showed that he could make big throws, but the question became if he could win big games (and thrive at the same time). If Saturday is any indication of what to expect from him in the future, UCF's going to be even more of a nightmare to stop. Gabriel checked a number of boxes this weekend, and showed he's matured as a passer and as a leader.
Gabriel and the Knights took some time to get going, but a 21-point second quarter put them ahead with a comfortable 28-7 lead. From there, adversity hit the Knights offense, and it was how Gabriel responded that showed his growth. Tre Nixon caught four passes in the first half and turned them into 94 yards and two touchdowns, while Jaylon Robinson caught six passes for 105 yards to lead the Knights in the first half. Nixon was injured on his second touchdown catch, and was ruled out for the remainder of the game. Robinson didn't catch another pass. Running back Greg McCrae even went down with an injury and didn't return.
Last year, the Knights struggled to handle adversity like that in close games. Gabriel threw interceptions and the offense would stall. The stalling returned in the first half against Georgia Tech, making fans worry that it was more of the same. The Yellow Jackets even pulled within 28-21 early in the fourth quarter. But it was Gabriel and Marlon Williams that ensured the Knights would come away with the win. Williams finished with 154 yards, most of which came in the second half, and two scores. His second touchdown put UCF up 42-21 to solidify the cushion.
While the third quarter was a rough, Gabriel picked up his play in the fourth, making a number of tough throws like the touchdown to Williams above. Even when the two missed on a scramble and Williams was visibly upset on the sideline, Gabriel stayed calm. In spite of Georgia Tech pulling within one score, UCF's offense snapped out of their slump for 21 fourth quarter points. It's their performances in those two quarters that should help fans believe the Knights have evolved offensively.
The two halfs of the game were almost like two games, and Gabriel and the offense came up big late in the clutch. UCF finished the both the first and second half strong, thanks largely to their quarterbacks ability to make throws in key situations. Gabriel threw for 417 yards in the game, but 307 came in the second (197) and fourth (110) quarters. That's how you finish. He never panicked, never gave in to the heat of the moment, and shined when the spotlight was the brightest. If we have to pick one thing he needs to improve, it's his awareness.
We're not talking awareness of what's going on during the play (minus one of the turnovers), but rather being the leader of the offense before the play begins. UCF took a number of false start penalties that either killed drives or put the offense in tough situations. While the Knights offense likes to operate at a blistering pace, those penalties simply cannot happen. Especially early in the season, this is the time to slow things down to make sure everyone's on the same page. Gabriel's in charge of that, and it just takes a quick look around to make sure everyone's set before snapping the football. Luckily it didn't affect the outcome and it's something that's easily fixable.
Dillon Gabriel took big strides in many ways this weekend, but there are also things that he can fix. His performance was a warning to the rest of the AAC: he's just getting started. It was his first game, and he's already putting up gaudy numbers. Oh, and he's doing it in clutch situations when momentum isn't on their side. If Saturday is any indication of what to expect from the Knights and their sensational sophomore, it's that they're going to be tough to beat even when you think you have them down.