Gabriel, No. 13 UCF beat East Carolina 51-28 in AAC opener

Dillon Gabriel threw for 408 yards and four touchdowns to help No. 13 Central Florida beat East Carolina 51-28 to open its American Athletic Conference schedule

GREENVILLE, N.C. — Dillon Gabriel threw for 408 yards and four touchdowns to help No. 13 Central Florida beat East Carolina 51-28 on Saturday to open its American Athletic Conference schedule.

Jaylon Robinson and Marlon Williams each had huge games as Gabriel’s top targets for the Knights (2-0, 1-0). Robinson had nine catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns, while Williams had a career-best 13 catches for 136 yards.

Throw in Greg McCrae’s short first-quarter scoring run to lead a productive ground game, and UCF finished with 632 yards with its fast-paced offense pushing the tempo to keep the pressure on. The Knights had a penalty-filled start in the first quarter — including four false-start penalties while trying to get off their first offensive snap — before settling in and blowing 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,” said Gabriel, who had a program-record 18 straight completions at one point. “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 to squander any chance at momentum while the Knights tripped over their own mistakes.

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.”

THE TAKEAWAY

UCF: This was the second road game to start the season for the Knights, who opened with a 28-point win at Georgia Tech while amassing 660 yards. While the offense hummed along again, Josh Heupel’s squad will have to start cleaning up the penalties. UCF had 19 penalties for 139 yards, with 10 coming in the first quarter and seven of those false-start flags.

“Some of the things we have to correct in this one are obvious to everybody that was watching the football game,” 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.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

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.

UP NEXT

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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