The No. 12 UCF Knights (13-0, 8-0 AAC) defeated the No. 7 Auburn Tigers (10-4, 7-1 SEC) Monday night 34-27 in the 2018 Chick Fil-A Peach Bowl, becoming the only undefeated FBS team this year. Below are our biggest takeaways from UCF’s historic win.
Dominant Defense: After struggling during the second half of the season, the UCF defense came up big in the first half against Auburn. UCF held Auburn to six points in the first half – the only other team to do that this season: the defending national champions Clemson Tigers.
They held Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson to just 71 yards on 22 carries. The defensive line also put consistent pressure on Auburn QB Jarret Stidham as they were able to come up with five sacks in the first half. Redshirt junior defensive tackle A.J. Wooten forced a fumble on a quarterback keeper that was returned by redshirt junior safety Tre Neal to the Auburn 21 yard line.
“We [were] all over the place,” redshirt senior linebacker and Peach Bowl defensive MVP Shaquem Griffin said. “I heard recently that the quarterback wasn’t getting sacked that much this year. I think we had a thousand sacks today.”
The second half got off to a rough start for the Knights on defense however, as the Tigers were able to move the ball with relative ease, scoring on their first two drives of the half, taking a 20-13 lead.
The defense was able to respond, forcing the Tigers to punt or throw an interception on five of their next six drives. Those two interceptions ended up being the decisive plays. One was returned by senior linebacker Chequan Burkett for what ended up being the winning score, and the other pick came by Antwan Collier – who was filling in for the ejected Kyle Gibson. The interception by Collier effectively ended the game with 24 seconds left.
The defensive line that had a big first half wasn’t as disruptive in the second half, but were key parts of those interceptions, as both interceptions were products of redshirt sophomore quarterback Jarrett Stidham being pressured on the throw.
Milton Responds: The offense as a whole struggled in this game, but sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton especially struggled in the first half. Milton was 3-17 for 30 yards and lost a fumble.
He missed some open recievers, including a seam route to Otis Anderson that looked like it would have been a touchdown. He was able to make up for it a little bit using his legs. Milton finished the first half with 83 rushing yards, including an 18-yard scramble for a TD. He also set the UCF single season rushing record for a quarterback.
“We kind of came out sleepwalking, throwing the ball in the air,” Milton said. “Coaches were calling good plays and utilizing my legs.”
He was able to bounce back in the second half, especially in the fourth quarter. After the Knights got down 20-13, he led them on two straight scoring drives late in the third and beginning of the fourth quarters – accounting for 114 yards and two touchdowns on those drives – to give the Knights the lead back at 27-20. Milton won the offensive MVP award, finishing with 242 yards and two touchdowns through the air, and 116 yards and one touchdown on the ground.
UCF Lines Defies Expectations: Coming into this game, everyone was talking about how dominant Auburn’s line was on both side of the ball. Some people even pegged Auburn’s defensive line as one of the best units in the nation.
The lines handled business and then some today, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The defensive line came up with six sacks led by Griffin who had 1.5 himself and 3.5 tackles for loss. They also were largely responsible for the two interceptions, forcing Stidham into bad throws on both occasions. One of the SEC’s top rushing attacks was held to just 90 yards on 44 carries as well, in large part due to the line filling gaps.
The offensive line was the bigger question mark, especially given that fact that the Knights were going to be without redshirt senior left tackle Aaron Evans due to injury. Some people thought the Knights were in for a long day against a defensive line unit that dominated teams like Alabama and Georgia. The Knights defied all expectations, giving up only one sack and paving the way for 169 UCF rushing yards.
“The O-line dominated the game today. I don’t think anybody expected that,” Milton said.
Perfect Knights Overcome Distractions: The Knights were able to win this game and finish the season a perfect 13-0 amongst a number of distractions; mainly head coach Scott Frost taking the job as Nebraska’s head coach and taking the entire staff with him. While the coaches worked hard to juggle both jobs, they knew that this game would be extra tough given the circumstances.
“They overcame playing 12 weeks in a row, or 11 weeks in a row to finish the season without a break, coming off a hurricane, having schedule changes,” Frost said. “And then turning around and winning the conference championship, coming here with a coach that took another job and all those distractions, and finding a way to get it done. I didn’t know if these guys would be able to do it.”
They didn’t make it any easier on themselves, as the Knights had to make a second half comeback for the third game in a row – arguably their three biggest games.
New Years Success: The Knights are now 2-0 in New Years Six /BCS bowls, with both of those wins coming in the past five seasons. Before this win against Auburn, UCF beat the Baylor Bears 52-42 in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, led by then quarterback Blake Bortles.
Despite success in these big games over the past few years, UCF still cannot get people to call them by their proper “Knights” nickname. After the game, during the trophy presentation, the large jumbotron inside the Mercedes-Benz Stadium illuminated with “UCF Golden Knights: 2018 Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl Champions.”