No. 16 UCF returns to Spectrum Stadium on Friday night to host Lane Kiffin and FAU in one of the most highly-anticipated games on its 2018 schedule.
Due to the impact of Hurricane Florence and the resulting cancellation of their game with North Carolina, the Knights (2-0, 1-0 AAC) haven’t played since Sept. 8. Having an unscheduled bye week can present some issues, but many players on the roster have dealt with the same situation in the last couple of seasons. It’s not ideal, but the team realizes that it must play the hand it has been dealt.
“It’s not exactly what you want early in the season,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said Wednesday. “You tend to make a bunch of strides week-to-week by playing. Live action always does that. I think our kids will handle it with maturity. I think they’ll be excited about being out there and playing.”
The Owls (2-1, 0-0 Conference USA) present the Knights with their toughest challenge to date, coming to Orlando with a highly-touted offense centered on star running back Devin Singletary. The junior from Deerfield Beach rushed for 1,920 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2017, helping FAU to an 11-3 record and a conference title. So far this year, he has 210 yards and seven touchdowns in three games. It’s unlikely that the UCF defense will see another running back this season that is as dangerous as “Motor.”
“[He’s] explosive,” Heupel said. “He can make you miss. It’s a big test for us.”
FAU launched a Heisman Trophy campaign for Singletary back in July, similar to the “HIsman” effort UCF has for quarterback McKenzie Milton. While Singletary put up a program-record five rushing touchdowns in his last game, Milton is looking to rebound from an uncharacteristic performance in his last game. In the 38-0 win over South Carolina State, he threw three first-half interceptions and ended the night with just one touchdown pass. Despite that, the junior isn’t allowing himself to feel any pressure that could result from an off night.
“You can’t get too high or too low,” Milton said Sunday. “The best thing about this game is you get to go in each week and you get to go prove yourself again, whether you throw three touchdowns or three interceptions. Each week is a new challenge and a new task.”
Milton will have the benefit of facing a shaky Owl defense that is allowing 39.3 points and 452 yards per game this season. Of course, he will continue to have help from a variety of weapons on the UCF offense. Tre Nixon, a transfer from Ole Miss, has eight catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns this season. Dredrick Snelson is still searching for his first touchdown of the year, but has 11 catches for 135 yards in the first two games.
With so much focus on Milton and his talented group of receivers, opposing defenses might overlook the strong play of the Knights’ backfield. Adrian Killins, Otis Anderson, Greg McCrae and Taj McGowan teamed up for a big night two weeks ago and will be looking for more of the same on Friday night.
Given the state of its offense and the struggles of the FAU defense, UCF should be able to score early and often. The responsibility is on Singletary and his offense to keep up. The fact that they have Kiffin should help the Owls, as he has a proven track record in producing successful offenses. His team averaged 40.6 points per game last year and has put up 33 and 49 points in its last two games.
“I know he’s a great offensive mind,” Milton said. “He’s been around the game for a long time and he’s definitely gonna dial up some stuff for our defense, but I think Coach [Randy] Shannon and the boys will be ready.”
The question for Kiffin coming into this season revolved around the quarterback position, but he appears to already have an answer there. Chris Robison, who was dismissed by Oklahoma before his freshman year, is working on finding his stride as a young signal-caller for the Owls. After struggling against the Sooners in week one, he put up a program-record 471 passing yards and three touchdowns in FAU’s week two win over Air Force. Consistency has been lacking from Robison, which is something that the UCF defense will look to take advantage of in front of what should be a rowdy home crowd.
ESPN’s FPI gives the Knights, a 13 1/2 point favorite, an 84.9 percent chance to emerge victorious on Friday. But the team knows better than to overlook an opponent, especially one as well-coached and talented as FAU.
“We know we’re going to get FAU’s best shot, but they’ll get ours as well,” Milton said. “We definitely look forward to Friday night.”
Kickoff for Friday’s matchup is set for 7 p.m. The game will be televised by ESPN.