UCF Comeback Underscores Team’s Character

ORLANDO – Resiliency.

Look it up and you might see the 2018 UCF Knights as the definition.

They showed plenty of resiliency in Saturday’s American Athletic Conference championship game, facing a 17-point first-half deficit only to catch up and pull away over the final 30 minutes in a 56-41 win over visiting Memphis.

In capturing their second straight conference title, both times defeating the Tigers, the Knights (12-0, No. 8 CFP) extended their win streak to 25. Their reward as the highest-ranked Group of 5 conference champ is a date with LSU in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day.

“Our kids continue to fight, believe in the guy next to them, believe in themselves, believe in what we are doing inside of our program,” coach Josh Heupel said following Saturday’s game.

The face of the program may not have been on the field, but McKenzie Milton had a heavy presence. The Hawaiian-born quarterback, who suffered a ghastly right knee injury at USF on Thanksgiving weekend and was released from Tampa General Hospital on Saturday following three surgeries, was honored as fans were given leis upon entering Spectrum Stadium. The team wore helmet stickers with Milton’s No. 10.

It was only fitting that Milton’s backup, redshirt freshman Darriel Mack Jr., earned game MVP honors. Mack, making his second start, overcame early struggles (three fumbles, two lost) before leading the comeback.

“He made major plays all year and helped his win a lot of games,” said Mack, of Milton. “Going out there and finishing and winning it for him, it was very big for not only me, but the team. It may not have been said as much, but everybody knew, and everybody could hear that we were going out there to win for 10.”

In winning for “10” Mack totaled 407 yards (348 passing) and six touchdowns, four on the ground.

“Everybody has confidence in D.J.,” said Heupel. “I think you saw that tonight and D.J. has got a lot of confidence in himself and played fantastic football.”

The Knights, who broke a tie with USF by recording their 25th consecutive game of 30-plus points and forced a turnover in a nation’s-leading 31st straight game, trailed by 17 points on three occasions in the first half.

During the first 30 minutes the defense was repeatedly gashed by a running game led by Darrell Henderson, who had 207 yards and three touchdowns on 10 carries and also threw a TD pass.

In the second half, in which UCF outscored Memphis 35-3, Henderson had only six carries for three yards. The offense, defense, it all came together in a resounding turnabout that underscored how this team sticks together no matter what it is up against.

“There is deep love inside the locker room for one another, coaches and players alike,” said Heupel. “In the (11 months I have been here), the amount of energy the staff and players have put into building those relationships, they’re real.”

Or, as sophomore running back Greg McRae said, “We sell out for each other.”

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Tom Layberger has been a sports writer, reporter and editor since 1990. Among the companies he has worked for are Comcast, NBC and The Topps Company. In addition to being a contributing writer for sportstalkflorida.com, Tom also writes for forbes.com and globalsportmatters.com. A native of the Philadelphia suburbs and a USF grad, Tom is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation. He resides in Tampa.