No. 12 UCF returns to the field on Thursday night for the first time since Oct. 20, hosting Temple at Spectrum Stadium in a crucial AAC East matchup.
The Knights (7-0, 4-0 AAC) and Owls (5-3, 4-0 AAC) are tied atop the division heading into their meeting, which is the sixth-ever between the two programs. The winner will control its destiny on the path to a spot in the AAC Championship Game, which is just four weeks from Saturday.
The trajectory of Temple’s season has been far different from UCF’s, yet coach Geoff Collins has his team right in the thick of things as far as conference title aspirations go. The Owls started the season with back-to-back home losses to Villanova and Buffalo, but a switch at quarterback from graduate student Frank Nutile to redshirt sophomore Anthony Russo sparked a strong run. Since Russo took over the starting job, Temple is 5-1 with wins over Maryland, Navy and then-No. 20 Cincinnati.
UCF’s 37-10 road win over East Carolina two Saturdays ago was its 20th straight victory, which is the nation’s longest active winning streak. The Knights are No. 9 in the AP Poll, but debuted at No. 12 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings that were released Tuesday night. Star quarterback McKenzie Milton, who missed the win over the Pirates, is a game-time decision for Thursday.
Here is how UCF and Temple stack up nationally heading into week 10:
UCF- No. 7 (537.1 yards per game)
Temple- No. 94 (372.9 yards per game)
UCF- No. 5 (44.4 points per game)
Temple- No. 57 (30.5 points per game)
UCF- No. 29 (276.0 yards per game)
Temple- No. 57 (239.1 yards per game)
UCF- No. 8 (261.1 yards per game)
Temple- No. 103 (133.8 yards per game)
UCF- No. 76 (395.4 yards per game)
Temple- No. 22 (330.5 yards per game)
UCF- No. 15 (18.1 points per game)
Temple- No. 31 (21.4 points per game)
UCF- No. 49 (212.6 yards per game)
Temple- No. 4 (147.5 yards per game)
UCF- No. 93 (182.9 yards per game)
Temple- No. 94 (183.0 yards per game)
Coach Josh Heupel spoke with the media on Tuesday morning for the final time before the game. Here’s what he had to say:
On the health of quarterback McKenzie Milton, who missed UCF’s game at ECU on Oct. 20:
“McKenzie is still going to be a game-time decision this week… Medically, they feel like he’s moved in the right direction, obviously with the extra time. Again, it’ll be through warm-ups, how he feels.”
On the potential of rust coming out of the bye week:
“We certainly don’t want it. It’s just a few extra days that we’ve had off. Practice has been good. It’s been sharp. Preparation, they’ve been focused. I think they’re excited and ready for the opportunity.”
On the progression of the defense:
“They’ve grown in every phase, dating back to spring ball. I thought halfway through spring ball, they really turned the corner [and] bought in to what we’re doing: some of the schematic changes, just our overall philosophy, how it differed from what they had been playing in previously. Competed in a great way the second half of spring ball, came back in training camp much improved from where they left off in spring ball. They’ve grown every week. We’ve had some guys that maybe weren’t starting early in the year that have gotten opportunities. They’ve taken advantage of it. They’re a lot more comfortable. Our communication has gotten much better from the third level to the second to the first. We’re playing really hard and creating turnovers. So, I like how they’ve grown. [We] need them to take another big step this week.”
On how dangerous Temple could be:
“They’re a really good football team. You’re going to face good football teams in this conference every single week, but certainly the way they’ve played after the first couple of weeks of the season… They’re physical. They make you earn everything in all three phases of the game. They don’t give you anything. It’s a football team that’s really confident. They’ve bought in to what they’re doing as an overall philosophy inside of their building. It’s a huge test for us.”
On the importance of backup quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. getting a start under his belt against ECU:
“You get that experience. It lets you relax before kickoff. I think every snap you get of live reps helps you accelerate and grow a bunch in your learning curve, certainly at that position.”
On ignoring outside noise, including from the College Football Playoff rankings:
“You keep talking about it. You keep preaching it. You try to get your kids focused on the only thing that matters, which is today, which prepares us for kickoff. Our players have done a pretty good job of handling outside noise since I’ve gotten here in January. And they probably turned the page as much as anything in February once we got in the weight room. You keep talking about it and I think our kids understand that the only thing we can control is our next game. We’re only as good as our next one. We play Thursday night, Temple, and we’ve got a great test ahead of us.”
On playing on Thursday instead of Saturday after a bye week:
“It shortens it. It’s unique. You give your players maybe an extra day or two on the front end and then get a little extra time on the back end. It gives you a little bit more time between each of the kickoffs for your players to get back healthy.”
UCF will wear special-edition uniforms on Thursday night for the 2018 “Space Game.” This year’s version of the uniforms includes the return of the Citronaut, UCF’s unofficial first mascot. It will be the first time that the logo appears on the football field, coming after its appearances on select baseball and soccer uniforms in recent years. The full breakdown of the uniforms can be found here.
Kickoff for Thursday’s game at Spectrum Stadium is set for 7 p.m.