TAMPA — For the fourth consecutive year USF and UCF will conclude the regular season together on Black Friday. The twelfth War On I-4 will kick off at 3:30 (ESPN) at Raymond James Stadium.
The Bulls lead the all-time series 6-5, though the Knights have won the last three meetings, including 34-7 in Orlando last season.
USF (1-7/0-5 AAC) had its game against what would have been visiting Nany cancelled last week due to contact tracing among the Bulls. Their last game was a 56-21 defeat at Houston on November 14, the Bulls’ seventh straight loss and 11th in a row at the hands of an FBS opponent.
The Knights (5-3/4-3) lost at home to No. 7 Cincinnati, 36-33. It was only the seventh defeat in their last 47 games dating to the start of the 2017 season. All seven losses in that stretch have been by single digits. The three losses this season have been by 12 points.
Here a few items of interest heading into the game…..
On Tuesday, coach Jeff Scott said he was undecided on his starting quarterback for Friday. Noah Johnson, who missed the Bulls’ last outing at Houston after playing the entire game at Memphis the week before, Jordan McCloud and Katravis Marsh were all practicing this week. Scott said Cade Fortin, injured October 23 against visiting Tulsa, has been practicing this week, but was not sure if he would be available.
Scott opened his press conference Tuesday saying that redshirt sophomore running back Johnny Ford was no longer with the team.
“I am not going to get into the details of what led to my decision,” he said. “We wish him the very best and I am not really going to have further comments on that situation at this time.”
Ford, who did not play the last two games, leads the Bulls in rushing with 285 yards and leads non-quarterbacks in total offense with 41 yards per game. He has 1,937 career all-purpose yards.
Freshman Brian Battie has carried the load the past two games, toting the ball 23 times for 162 yards after going 8-68 in the Bulls’ first six games. Redshirt freshman Leonard Parker equaled his season high with seven carries (23 yards, TD) at Houston. Sophomore Kelley Joiner is second on the team in rushing with 252 yards (3.9 ypc).
The Knights are second nationally to Kent State with an average of 587 yards per game and 11th in scoring with an average of 42.6, which leads the American.
Sophomore quarterback Dillon Gabriel leads the nation with 3,017 yards passing and his 26 touchdown passes are tied for second. He has thrown only three interceptions. His top target, senior receiver Marlon Williams, is second nationally in receptions (71), receiving yards (1,039) and tied for second with 10 touchdown receptions. Sophomore Jalen Robinson has 46 receptions and is averaging 18.6 yards per catch.
“He has an extremely strong arm, very accurate and puts the ball exactly where it needs to be,” said Scott, of Gabriel. “The other thing that you don’t typically have from a guy who throws the ball that well is that he is a great runner. He is really fast, has great quickness, knows how to extend plays with his legs. So it is not a situation where you can just drop everybody back and try to cover. You literally have to account for him as a runner as well. I believe he is one of the top three or four quarterbacks in college football right now.”
UCF’s running backs are also impressive. Seniors Otis Anderson and Greg McRae are both averaging more than five yards per carry and have combined to rush for 1,165 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“The big thing with them, and (coach) Josh (Heupel) does a tremendous job with that offense, is the tempo is so fast,” said defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer. “When they get into that rhythm and get moving, it is tough to get a stop. You just hope that you can break their rhythm some way, somehow. The quarterback is so good and they run such good routes that you can’t sit back all day. (Gabriel) knows where the space is and he will pick you apart.”
UCF’s 20/20 defense
The Knights enter Friday’s game having gained 20 turnovers (11 fumbles) and recorded 20 sacks. Twelve players have recorded at least one sack and 13 have either intercepted a pass and/or recovered a fumble.
Scott is particularly impressed with the defensive line.
“They are playing 10 or 11 D-linemen that all look like they can be starters,” he said. “They are very disruptive on the defensive line and I think that is a big emphasis for our offene this week because we have to get the ball out and not allow those linemen to get penetration.”
McKenzie Milton’s return?
It was two years ago at Raymond James Stadium that the quarterback went down with a devastating leg injury. A positive mindset from the outset coupled with physical therapy have Milton, who was eighth in Heisman voting in 2017 and sixth in 2018, back on the football field and working with the Knights’ scout team. There has been some chatter that he might get into Friday’s game.
“I got sick to my stomach watching that two years ago,” said Scott, of an injury that nearly led to amputation. “I am very impressed and have respect for the way that he has fought back in two years, to be able to get back when a lot of people with an injury like that would probably say ‘Hey, my career is over’ and move on. I think that tells you a lot about who he is as a person and the way he responds to adversity.”
Given all players received a free year of eligibility this season, some seniors may return in 2021 and others will not. For those in the latter category, Friday will be their final game.
“There were a lot of things that we were able to accomplish this year inside our locker room, establishing the foundation and the culture we are going to have moving forward,” said Scott. “The seniors were a big part of doing that for us. I definitely have a lot of gratitude for them and I want them to go out and play their best game here.”
Scott’s only TD
The lone touchdown of Scott’s career at Clemson was against UCF during the 2001 season. A holder on special teams, Scott went 22 yards on a fake field goal to give the Tigers a 21-7 lead in what would be a 21-13 win.
When asked about his recollections of that moment, Scott said he recalled reading the paper the next morning and seeing coach Tommy Bowden’s comments that it looked like Scott had one too many pancakes that morning and might not reach the end zone.
“If the ball was on the 23-yard line or any further back, I would not have scored,” said Scott, a walk-on receiver who noted he was 4-for-6 in his career on fake field goal attempts with three first downs and the TD. “The fact it was on the 22, I literally got the nose (of the football) over the pylon. As I was running, I knew that may be the best shot of my career to score a touchdown.”
Tom Layberger is a contributing writer for forbes.com. Read his feature on renovations and upgrades at Raymond James Stadium ahead of Super Bowl LV.