With the Knights up 7-0 early in the second quarter and driving, McKenzie Milton took off on a run to the outside and every UCF fans’ worst nightmare came to fruition. The UCF quarterback was hit low and went down holding his knee.
Both teams gathered around as the quarterback was carted off the field. Milton gave a thumbs up to the crowd as he left, and the Knights had to go play the last three quarters against their biggest rival without their starting quarterback.
“It was heartbreaking because McKenzie Milton is a great person,” sophomore running back Greg McCrae said. “It wasn’t about McKenzie Milton the football player, that you guys see all the time. It’s him as a person and seeing that happen to him, it was devastating to the whole team, and so we all rallied around that and just tried to use that as our motivation.”
UCF was able to come away from the War on I-4 with a 38-10 victory, to finish the regular season undefeated for the second straight year and extend the longest active winning streak to 24 games.
The offense took some time to find its footing when Darriel Mack Jr. came in. In the meantime, the defense continued its strong play to keep the Knights a comfortable distance ahead.
They only gave up 309 yards, and were able to limit the USF passing game, only allowing 113 yards through the air. They forced an early turnover and stopped the Bulls on two big fourth downs in the first half, including one when USF was at the goal line.
They did surrender one touchdown in the third quarter, but then held the Bulls to negative yardage after that.
“I thought defensively, just a suffocating performance, by them, both in the run game and getting after the quarterback in the pass game as well.” Coach Josh Heupel said.
The offense was eventually able to get going thanks to McCrae and the offensive line. The Knights had 558 total yards, with the rushing attack accounting for 391 yards and four touchdowns. McCrae finished with 181 of those yards and three scores.
Mack struggled throwing the ball, but did a good job managing the game as he didn’t have any turnovers. He finished the game 5-14 for 81 yards and had 51 rushing yards. He did have a nice 47 yards pass to Dredrick Snelson that set up McCrae’s third touchdown run.
“Extremely proud of DJ,” Heupel said. “Just the way he came in, the poise he played with, took care of the football. Missed a couple things, but then rebounded and found a way to make some plays as well.”
UCF now has a rematch with Memphis next Saturday in the conference championship.
What we learned: UCF is resilient. The Knights lost arguably their most important player in Milton early in the game, but they didn’t let that stop them. Not only did they win, but they won decisively. The defense stepped up and held the USF offense in check for the most the game and the running attack carried the offense when Mack had a hard time throwing the ball. They’d won without Milton before, but this was a more difficult situation and the team responded in the only way they knew how; win.
“I’m proud of our kids, their resiliency to come back from something like that, that happens and continue to play football,” Heupel said. “Because this game did matter, and our performance the next two and a half quarters mattered.”
What went right: The Defense. They were instrumental in the win tonight. They helped keep the Bulls at an arms distance while the offense found its rhythm and then shut the door when it did. They struggled to contain the run at some points, as the Bulls’ Johnny Ford finished with 120 yards on the ground, but never allowed the USF passing game to get going.
“We’re just making a play,” sophomore safety Richie Grant said. “You got to be in the right spot and when you’re in the right spot, you can make the play.”
What went wrong: Milton’s injury. It was one of the biggest stories of this game. He has been one of the Knights’ best players during the 24-game winning streak, accounting for 79 touchdowns since the start of last season, which is the most in that time span. They’ve won both games that Milton has not seen a majority of the snaps, but the offense, and the passing game in particular has not looked nearly as dangerous without him.
Offensive Player of the Game: Greg McCrae. He was the player that sparked the UCF offense when Milton went out. He had big day and two of the most important touchdowns of the game. After Milton left the game, he scored a 40-yard touchdown to push the lead to 17-0. Then after USF scored their lone touchdown in the third quarter to cut the UCF lead to 17-10, he scored again, this one from 39-yards out to give the Knights the momentum back.
“Great job by the O-line,” McCrae said. “They picked up a lot of blocks, the holes were there, they made great adjustments on the fly. They just provided really big holes for me to run through and I just took it.”
Defensive Player of the Game: Richie Grant. He had another interception, this one an impressive grab on the sideline that stopped what looked like a promising USF drive. He was also second on the team in tackles with five. The secondary looked good tonight and he was one of the best players in the unit.