PITTSBURGH (AP) — Josh Heupel calls the growing groundswell of support for 15th-ranked UCF "outside noise." The coach stressed he can't control it and orders his players to tune it out even as the weeks pass, the blowouts pile up and the national profile for the current Group of Five darling ticks upward.
Good luck with that. If UCF (3-0) keeps rolling, the din might become deafening.
The Knights carry a 25-game regular-season winning streak into Saturday's visit to Pittsburgh (1-2) insistent they aren't focused on making another statement victory against a Power Five program. Maybe, but the Panthers also offer UCF one last shot at building its resume before heading into American Athletic Conference play.
"Just speaking for me, we're earning our respect out there on the field," defensive back Richie Grant said. "We just like to go out and dominate."
Something the Knights have done with ease through the first three weeks of the season, including a 45-27 pummeling of Stanford last Saturday, a game in which UCF used its up-tempo offense to roll up 545 yards while holding the ball for less than 28 minutes.
The Knights play at a fast pace, a style that dares opponents to keep up. Few have over the last three seasons. Only four teams have stayed within 10 points of UCF during the regular season since 2017. The list of those on the lopsided end of the score include the Panthers, who were crushed 45-14 in Orlando last September.
"They're explosive, and there's a reason they've won," Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. "They're sitting in a hotbed of players down in the state of Florida. For all those voters out there, it's no fluke."
The Knights aren't just a one-player wonder either. Quarterback McKenzie Milton is sitting out the season while recovering from a right knee injury and Darriel Mack Jr. missed all of training camp with a broken ankle. Yet UCF has kept right on rolling, perhaps landing Milton's eventual long-term successor in true freshman Dillon Gabriel.
Gabriel, like Milton, is a Hawaii native. He has thrown for nine touchdowns without an interception across three games and will likely get the start over Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush. Heupel has declined to name a starter, but Gabriel's performance has likely forced his hand.
"He was a great quarterback Day 1 since he came in," wide receiver Gabe Davis said. "He could always sling the ball. He prepares himself. He's ready."
The Panthers believe they are too. Pitt is coming off an emotional 17-10 loss to rival Penn State last Saturday. The Panthers had a chance to tie late in the fourth quarter but opted to kick on fourth down at the Penn State 1. The kick missed and the Nittany Lions held on. Narduzzi defended his decision numerous times but allowed it likely will be debated for the next 10 years.
Pitt aims to beat a ranked opponent for the fourth straight season.
Dillon spread the ball around against Stanford, with his four touchdowns going to four different players. Yet it's Davis that is quickly becoming UCF's best deep threat. He is averaging 22.9 yards per reception, a significant boost from 2018 when he averaged 15.9 yards and scored seven touchdowns. Davis has three scores already but will be tested against an aggressive Pitt secondary that might be among the best in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
CONFIDENCE IN KENNY
Pitt junior quarterback Kenny Pickett's production has ticked up in each of the first three weeks as he's adjusted to offensive coordinator Mark Whipple's pass-centric system. Pickett threw for a career-high 372 yards against Penn State and appeared to get stronger as the game went along. The Panthers have needed Pickett to be solid with the running game stuck in neutral. Pitt is averaging just 87.3 yards per game, dead last in the 14-team ACC.
UCF's defense has given up just 41 points in three games, with all but 13 of those coming in the second half with the outcome long decided. The Knights have created at least one turnover in 32 straight contests. The Panthers have been good at protecting the ball after a mistake-prone opener against Virginia. Pitt hasn't committed a turnover in either of its last two games.
SECOND THEN NONE
Narduzzi believes the Panthers have the stamina to make sure they don't get gassed by UCF's breakneck pace. Maybe, but the Panthers will need to get away from a troubling trend. Pitt hasn't scored a second-half touchdown in any of its last six games dating back to 2018.
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