GREENVILLE, N.C. – For the second straight week, Dillon Gabriel and No. 13 Central Florida had no problem running their fast-tempo offense and rolling to big offensive totals.
The Knights just need to start cleaning up some of their penalties, too.
Gabriel threw for 408 yards and four touchdowns to help UCF beat East Carolina 51-28 on Saturday, winning its American Athletic Conference opener for the fifth straight season in a game marked by the Knights' offensive brilliance and its early trouble with pre-snap penalties.
“You never play a perfect game but we came out (and) we put 51 points up,” Gabriel said.
UCF (2-0, 1-0) rolled to 632 total yards after amassing 660 in its opener, getting huge performances from receivers Jaylon Robinson and Marlon Williams. But there were also 19 penalties for 139 yards, 10 coming in the opening quarter with seven of those false-start flags.
That included the bizarre sequence of the Knights having four straight false starts while trying to get off their first offensive snap. Yet, as Gabriel noted, the Knights went from a 1st-and-30 from their own 5-yard line to scoring on that drive anyway on Greg McCrae's short TD run.
The Knights soon settled in and blew the game open with a pair of touchdowns in the final 5 minutes before halftime.
“I’m proud of the guys, everyone played really well — and, there's still a lot to fix,” Gabriel said. “You can see what we do and without some penalties, without just minor things we’ve got to fix, I think the ceiling is extremely high.”
Holton Ahlers threw for 215 yards and three TDs for the Pirates (0-1, 0-1), who were making a delayed start to the season after coronavirus-related scheduling changes. And it came in an essentially empty Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium due to COVID-19 protocols, with only a smattering of player family members in attendance.
But after a game-opening TD drive, the Pirates lost fumbles on their side of the 50 on three consecutive first-quarter possessions. They didn't make it back to the end zone until the Knights led 41-7 early in the third.
By the time it was over, the school said the Pirates had come within 2 yards of matching the most allowed in any season opener in program history.
“Really had an opportunity to get some control of the ballgame and had three turnovers,” Pirates coach Mike Houston said. "You have three turnovers there in the first quarter, to where you’re around midfield, you’ve got a chance to stick the ball in again, to take control of the game, to get a lead on what everybody regards as the best team in our league.
"And those mistakes, you just can’t keep making them.”
UCF: This was the second road game to start the season for the Knights, with the penalty issues seemingly the biggest issue to address. Going back to last week's Georgia Tech win, UCF has committed 14 false-start penalties this season.
“Some of the things we have to correct in this one are obvious to everybody that was watching the football game,” coach Josh Heupel said. “I believe we’ll do those things.”
ECU: The good news was the Pirates made it to gameday for the first time this season. They were originally scheduled to host Marshall for their opener on Aug. 29, but that game was pushed back to Sept. 12 — and then postponed again to a to-be-determined date after the Pirates had to pause football activities in August due to a coronavirus cluster. Beyond that, it was a rough start to Houston's second season.
Gabriel became the first UCF quarterback with consecutive 400-yard passing games and had a program-record 18 straight completions at one point. His top targets were just as good.
Robinson had nine catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns, while Williams had a career-best 13 catches for 136 yards.
Robinson, an Oklahoma transfer, had a 64-yard touchdown catch when he sprinted free off the line and had no defender nearby.
“I was too wide open, I just didn’t want to drop it,” Robinson said.
Ahlers said the Pirates had some nerves Friday when they had a Zoom call with a doctor to get the go-ahead to finally play.
“We prepared as if we had a game, but with 2020, we get so close so many times, you don’t know what’s going to happen," Ahlers said.
UCF moved up just one spot after the Georgia Tech romp. It’s unclear how the Knights’ position will change now with Big Ten and Pac-12 teams eligible to appear in Sunday’s new Top 25 for the first time since the preseason poll.
UCF: The Knights play their first home game next Saturday against Tulsa.
ECU: The Pirates travel to Georgia State next Saturday.
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