TAMPA – The War on I-4 Trophy weighs 160 pounds. Given that UCF is coming to town with a 23-game win streak it is safe to say some serious heavy lifting will be required in order for USF to come away with a win on Friday.
Especially with how the Bulls (7-4/3-4 AAC) have been playing during what has grown into a four-game losing streak.
“When you get in a rivalry game and you are playing against a real good opponent, something has to go your way early to get you in the game,” USF coach Charlie Strong said during his weekly press conference. “This is one of those games where you can’t allow them to jump out to a big lead because all of sudden doubts start creeping into your mind.”
There have been many doubts during the Bulls’ losing skid, during which they have been outscored 160-91. They appeared to be in pretty good shape last week when they led Temple 17-0 at the half. While the defense continued to shine, something it certainly had not done in recent weeks, the offense stalled and the special teams experienced meltdowns in a miserable second half that resulted in a 27-17 loss.
“We haven’t put together a complete game in all three phases,” said Strong.
Failure to do so on Friday at Raymond James Stadium (4:15 ESPN/820 AM WWBA), where more than 50,000 fans are expected, will likely result in UCF stretching its win streak to 24. The Knights may do that anyway even if the Bulls do not provide any assistance. After all, the Knights are a high-powered team averaging 43.6 points per game, good for sixth nationally.
UCF (10-0/7-0) is also unflappable when things do not go their way. They came from behind in deplorable conditions in Memphis last month, weathered Temple’s first-half offensive onslaught three weeks ago and rebounded resoundingly after everything went against them early versus Cincinnati last week.
“When you start winning, you start playing with confidence and you just feel like no one is going to beat you,” said Strong. “That’s what they have going on right now. They just feel like they are not going to lose and when you have that attitude it is hard to lose.”
The Knights moved up two spots to No. 9 in the College Football Playoff rankings and, while they may not have a path to the playoff, all the noise for and against their inclusion is something Josh Heupel’s team refuses to engage.
“It’s really outside of our control,” said the first-year coach during this week’s AAC teleconference. “Our players have a real competitive maturity in that they focus on the task at hand. The only thing we are concerned about is South Florida this week. That’s the only thing we can control and all we really can control is today and how we prepare for that. Everything else will take care of itself.”
The fact UCF is enjoying a lengthy winning streak and has been part of the national conversation may add a little spice to Friday’s game, but it is not a dominate theme as far as the Bulls are concerned.
“It definitely adds fuel to the fire that you kind of want to stir things up with them, but at the end of the day they are our rival and you want to beat them regardless,” said receiver Tyre McCants, who had nine receptions for 227 yards and a touchdown in last season’s thrilling 49-42 loss in Orlando, a defeat that prevented the Bulls from playing for the conference title.
McCants is one of 18 players who will be honored on senior day. Barring an invitation to the Gasparilla Bowl, with which the AAC has a tie-in, USF seniors will run out of the tunnel and onto their home turf for the last time.
“This game means everything,” said senior corner Mazzi Wilkins. “The whole team, the seniors, we want to go out with a bang and leave a legacy behind. Even though we couldn’t achieve some of the goals that we wanted, (beating UCF) is one of the goals that we have written down and can still go out and achieve it.”
Friday will mark the 10th meeting between the teams. USF leads the series, 6-3. The teams met each year from 2005-08 and 2013 to present.
During the 23-game win streak the Knights have defeated teams from seven different conferences: AAC, ACC, Big Ten, CUSA, MEAC, OVC and SEC….The Knights have scored 30-plus points in 23 straight games, which is tied for the second-longest such streak since 1936, or the AP Poll era. The longest streak is USF’s 24 games from 2015-17…..Quarterback McKenzie Milton is 12th nationally with an average of 286 passing yards per game. He has thrown 24 touchdown passes and run for nine TDs….The Knights are eighth nationally with an average of 258 rushing yards per game. Sophomore Greg McCrae leads with 714 yards and is averaging 8.6 yards per carry….Junior Adrian Killins has complied 1,212 all-purpose yards (573 rushing) and has totaled eight TDs…..UCF is 83rd nationally in allowing 419 yards per game. However, they are allowing only 19.8 points to rank 21st. The unit has also forced at least one turnover in 29 straight games….Senior end Titus Davis is fourth in the conference with 15.5 tackles for loss. He has a team-high six sacks….Sophomore safety Richie Grant leads the AAC with four interceptions and his 9.3 tackles per game are third…..UCF will host the conference championship next Saturday and play the winner of Friday’s game between Houston and Memphis.
UCF will be the Bulls’ highest-ranked home opponent since No. 4 Florida State in 2012. The last time they defeated a top-10 opponent was No. 5 West Virginia at Raymond James Stadium in 2007. The Mountaineers are the highest-ranked team USF has defeated…..The 18 seniors to be honored Friday have contributed to 36 wins the past four seasons, the winningest class in program history….Bentlee Sanders is eighth nationally with an average of 27.9 yards per kick return….Last week at Temple, Jordan Cronkrite became the fifth USF player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. He enters the UCF game with 1,065 yards and is fourth in the conference with an average of 106.5 yards per game….Senior linebacker Khalid McGee is fifth in the AAC with an average of 9.1 tackles per game…..Since moving from end to linebacker in the absence of the injured Nico Sawtelle, Greg Reaves has compiled 42 tackles in five games to lead the team in that stretch.