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Psst! Central Florida has a defense, too

The Knights, long noted for their high-powered offense, are quietly moving up the defensive ranks.

By JAMAL THALJI

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 3, 2000


Just the facts, please, for Central Florida linebacker Tony Hardman.

He doesn't speculate, and he doesn't guess. So when asked to evaluate UCF's defense, Hardman has to wait until all the facts are in.

Five games into the season, they're not.

"I would have to say we're a mystery," the Clearwater High product said.

But after Saturday's 31-10 victory against Eastern Michigan, UCF's first road win this season, it is a mystery that is one game closer to being solved.

The Knights enjoyed their most impressive defensive showing of the season, holding Eastern Michigan to 280 yards of offense -- 30 of those on the ground, thanks to 39 negative yards off three sacks of quarterback Walter Church.

To say it's a turnaround would be inaccurate. Despite a 3-2 start, despite climbing above .500 for the first time in 2000, the UCF defenders point out they've always been close to solving their own mystery.

They also hope UCF's reputation as an offensive machine -- the most famous alum is Daunte Culpepper, of course -- no longer comes at the expense of the defense.

"We've always been known as an offensive team," said junior defensive end Josh McKibben, who leads the line with 34 tackles and two sacks.

"Especially with the quarterbacks we've had in the past and the quarterbacks we have today. But we want to be known as a balanced team. We want to take control when we take the lead."

The offense, meanwhile, has been generating its usual share of attention -- for better or worse.

Seven starters returned from a unit that ranked 22nd nationally in total offense last season. But the running and passing attacks have been inconsistent.

Offensive linemen have been juggled. A separated shoulder forced senior quarterback Vic Penn to the bench and redshirt freshman Ryan Schneider made his first start in Saturday's victory. Injuries have limited top wide receiver Kenny Clark.

Headlines, though, don't matter to defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.

"My main concern is putting a defense on the field that can win football games," he said. "No matter whoever they talk about or blow up the most, we just go out and try and execute and try to win the football game. We have some good athletes, and we just need them to execute the defense and play with effort and excitement, play defensive football with passion."

Chizik said his defense is built like the Tampa Bay Bucs' pro unit: a base 4-3, cover-2 defense built on speed, swarming to the ball and not missing assignments or tackles. The UCF defensive staff spent time in the off-season with Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, going over individual player assignments and picking up nuances.

"I think when people think about UCF, I think they think of team speed," said Hardman, who leads the team with 56 tackles and is second in the nation in forcing four fumbles and recovering two.

"I think our defense is evolving, and with the right elements, we can do some good things."

UCF is ranked 32nd in Division I-A in total defense, up from 46th a week ago. The unit is 26th in scoring defense, 46th against the run, and the best improvement has come against the pass, up to 50th from 76th in a week.

While the season has been rougher than UCF hoped, two breakdowns especially gall the defense: giving up 507 yards and 35 points in a loss at Akron on Sept. 16 and losing 21-17 on Sept. 2 in the season opener at Georgia Tech when the defense allowed former Jesuit High quarterback George Godsey to throw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes in his first start, spoiling what would have been UCF's first major Division I-A upset.

"Those were cheap points they got on us," McKibben said. "We have to stop those things."

Being 32nd isn't good enough for this unit, however. The defense's goal remains the same as it did when the season began.

"We can be a top 10 defense in the county," McKibben said. "We can still get there."

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