Despite carrying a lot of momentum into Saturday’s non-conference matchup with FCS Austin Peay, No. 18 UCF needed a dominant offensive performance to offset some defensive struggles in a 73-33 win.
“I don’t think we played our best game,” Knights coach Scott Frost said. “We made some mistakes and I’m not completely happy with our performance. [But] any time you can play less than your best and win, it’s rewarding.”
The Knights (7-0, 4-0 AAC) were on fire offensively, scoring a program-record 73 points in the win. The 40-point win was not without its problems, though, as the defense allowed a season-high 33 points. The Governors (5-4, 4-1 OVC) battled all night, getting the game as close as 21-13 in the second quarter. It was a forgettable night for the Knights on defense, with poor tackling and missed assignments throughout.
“We came out kind of lackadaisical and didn’t make any plays in the first half,” junior linebacker Titus Davis said. “It was kind of a close game, it seemed like. We came in and made adjustments at halftime.”
The defense did recover in the second half, allowing just one touchdown after Austin Peay put up 26 in the first 30 minutes. But Saturday’s game was won by the offense, as UCF totaled 489 yards and went a perfect eight-for-eight in the red zone. Every time it looked like the Governors were grabbing momentum, the Knights answered right back with quick strikes. The Austin Peay defense just couldn’t keep up, which allowed for a more comfortable win.
While the UCF defense had its issues, it did force two big turnovers on the night. The first came in the second quarter when junior Pat Jasinski forced a fumble that redshirt senior Shaquem Griffin returned 20 yards for a touchdown. Later in the quarter, Davis hauled in his first career interception.
Special teams chipped in on the scoring effort as well, with junior Mike Hughes returning a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.
“I thought it was an awesome effort collectively,” sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton said. “It was overall a good team effort to get all those points up on the scoreboard.”
What we learned: UCF can win games even without its best. No team is ever perfect, but the Knights looked dominant and typically crisp in their first six games of the season. On Saturday evening, the team came out somewhat flat, at least on one side of the ball. There were a lot of mistakes in different areas, but UCF was able to come away with a seventh consecutive win despite a less-than-stellar performance. Not only that, but it was still a 40-point game.
“I don’t know if I was ever uncomfortable. I just wasn’t really happy with how we approached it,” Frost said. “You can’t cheat the game of football. You’re either playing your hardest or you’re not. You’re either preparing them as well as you can or you’re not. Apparently, the message didn’t get through and that’s our fault as a coaching staff.”
The Knights didn’t tackle well early, gave up some big plays and racked up too many penalty yards. Austin Peay gave UCF everything it had, and for a short while, it looked like it caught the team off guard.
What went right: The offensive effort. The Knights scored a school-record 73 points, breaking their previous record of 71 set against Gardner Webb on Sept. 5, 1992. UCF’s 489 yards weren’t as impressive as some outings earlier in the season, but the offensive unit was efficient. Seven of the Knights’ nine scoring drives lasted less than three and a half minutes.
“I think [my performance] is a tribute to the play-calling,” Milton said. “Coach Frost and Coach [Troy] Walters did an awesome job of getting the ball to our guys and taking what the defense was giving us.”
UCF did most of its damage through the air, throwing for 347 yards on the night. The ground game was still solid, putting up 142 yards.
What went wrong: Effort, in general. The UCF defense looked flat and maybe even disinterested early in the game, which allowed Austin Peay to establish some momentum. Had the defense stepped up after the offense’s scoring drive to open the game, the game might have gone a completely different way.
“We’ve just got to be better at what we’ve been taught,” redshirt senior linebacker Shaquem Griffin said. “I think we got beside ourselves a little in the first quarter and we had to bounce back from that. I think it’s good that come Monday, we’re going to slow it down and get back to the basics.”
The kickoff team also struggled for UCF, allowing multiple big returns by Austin Peay. Senior Kyran Moore returned eight kicks for 233 yards, including a 91-yard return for a touchdown. That was part of 363 all-purpose yards for Moore, which is the most by a FCS player this season.
Offensive player of the game: McKenzie Milton. The sophomore quarterback continued his impressive season by completing 24 of his 26 passing attempts for 275 yards and three touchdowns. He found nine different receivers on the night, while also scoring on the ground. He was relieved by freshman Noah Vedral late in the third quarter, but still managed to put up the best performance of the night.
“Any time you get a win, it’s a good feeling,” Milton said. “Austin Peay, they came to play. They’re a tough ball club.”
Through seven games this season, the Hawaii native has totaled 19 passing touchdowns, with two more coming on the ground.
Redshirt junior Matthew Wright also had a huge night, connecting on a 20-yard field goal in addition to making all 10 of his extra point attempts. The 10 extra points established a new school record.
Defensive player of the game: Shaquem Griffin. The reigning AAC defensive player of the year made his presence felt on Saturday, scoring the first touchdown of his career- and his life.
“It’s crazy, the excitement I have to score a touchdown for the first time, it’s amazing,” Griffin said. “I can’t even put it into words. I remember Tony Guerad was like ‘why was you running so far?’ And I was like ‘I didn’t know what to do with my legs at that point, so I just kept going.'”
Junior Pat Jasinski knocked the ball lose, which marked the first forced fumble of his career.
UCF returns to the field next Saturday (Nov. 4) at SMU (6-2, 3-1 AAC). Kickoff time is to be announced.