Football

LOOKING AHEAD FOR ISU FOOTBALL: Week seven, the UCF Knights

UCF’s running back RJ Harvey (7) runs with the ball against Texas Tech in a Big 12 football game, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, at Jones AT&T Stadium.© Annie Rice/Avalanche-Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Editor’s note: Seventh in a 12-part series previewing each of Iowa State’s 2024 regular-season opponents.

 AMES — Erratic. Inconsistent. Mysterious.

 UCF’s first season in the Big 12 showcased all of those uncertainty-based elements, but the Knights have the resources to be a top-tier program in the league for years to come.

 UCF flexed its NIL muscle in the offseason and will bring a deeper team with considerable star power into its Oct. 19 meeting with Iowa State at Jack Trice Stadium.

 Running back R.J. Harvey stands front and center in the spotlight — but he’ll need to share it with several others, many of whom were lured from the transfer portal.

 The Knights added coveted Toledo transfer Peny Boone to the backfield. He, like Harvey, ran for 1,400-plus yards last season. Boone scored 15 touchdowns on the ground and Harvey totaled 16, so they’ll form a one-two punch that will be hard to stop.

 Add in Arkansas transfer K.J. Jefferson at quarterback and preseason all-Big 12 receiver Kobe Hudson along with several other strong contributors and UCF’s offense could be among the league’s most prolific.

 Jefferson accounted for 88 touchdowns (67 passing, 21 rushing) as a three-year starter for the Razorbacks and Hudson averaged 20.5 yards per catch while leading the team in touchdown receptions with eight.

 The Knights’ defense, however, lacks much of that known star power — and struggled mightily last season. So they brought in three experienced linebackers from other FBS programs (Ethan Barr, Deshawn Pace, Josiah Pierre), and solid returners reside on the defensive line (Ricky Barber, Lee Hunter, Malachi Lawrence), and in the secondary (Demari Henderson).

Iowa State vs. UCF: 3 things to watch

 **Can the Cyclones pound the Knights on the ground? UCF ranked a dismal 125th in rushing defense last season and allowed foes to rush for nearly 200 yards per game. The three transfer linebackers — along with some other portal help across the defense — could lead to improvement, but Abu Sama and ISU’s backs should still have plenty of opportunities to compile big gains.  

 **What challenge will Jefferson pose at quarterback? The 6-3, 247-pound sixth-year senior proved dominant at times with the Razorbacks and was the team’s offensive MVP in two bowl wins. But his efficiency lagged last season and he was sacked a career-high 42 times. If ISU’s front six can keep him off-balance and subdue Harvey and Boone, takeaways could come in bunches. 

 **Can the Cyclones’ Defense get off the field on third down? UCF was tied for fourth nationally last season in third-down conversion percentage (50.0) and with weapons such as Boone, Harvey, Hudson and Jefferson it should be able to move the ball consistently and extend drives in unconventional ways. And as good as ISU’s defense has been under coordinator Jon Heacock, third down situations have been a problem at times. The Cyclones have ranked 40th or worse in that statistic in five of the past seven seasons.

2024 prognosis

  The Knights will be able to move the ball, so ISU’s defense must be at its best in the red zone. The Cyclones were excellent in that regard last season, ranking sixth nationally in red zone conversions allowed. If they can replicate that success against UCF, the win likelihood moves from possible to probable. 

@cyclonefanatic