UCF Football Preview: Knights Look to Rebound with Civil Conflict Showdown

University of Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton runs the ball for a 63-yard touchdown during a 26-25 loss to Temple University at Bright House Networks Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. (Photo by Christopher Bobo / New Day Review)
University of Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton runs the ball for a 63-yard touchdown during a 26-25 loss to Temple University at Bright House Networks Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. (Photo by Christopher Bobo / New Day Review)

The University of Central Florida (3-3, 1-1 in American Athletic Conference) are hoping to get back to their winning ways in a season that’s been filled with learning experiences after a winless campaign in 2015.

Part of those growing pains have come from a pair of heartbreaking defeats at home, falling to Temple University 26-25 on a late game-winning drive Saturday and a double-overtime loss to the University of Maryland on Oct. 1.

As UCF head coach Scott Frost alluded to in his game-week press conference on Monday, the margin for victory in college football can be incredibly thin.

“I want these guys to know their effort is great,” Frost said. “They’ve played good enough football to be 5-1 right now. The reason they’re 3-3…is we make too many mistakes that teams that aren’t used to winning make. And that comes down to very small margins. This league this year, with me watching it, everybody’s close.”

So thin and close, the Knights could easily be sitting in a comfortable spot for a bowl bid and a possible shot at their third AAC title in four years.

Now, the Knights embark on a two-game road trip that will take them to Hartford, Conn., for a Civil Conflict showdown against the University of Connecticut (3-4, 1-3 in AAC), aiming to climb back into the East Division race. UCF is currently ranked third behind Temple at No. 2 (5-3, 3-1 in AAC) and the University of South Florida at No. 1 (6-2, 3-1 in AAC).

“We need conference wins,” UCF defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “We need to play as hard as we can for every conference win. Right now, we’re a 3-3 ball club that’s a couple plays away from being a 5-1 ball club, but we don’t get them back. We need to get to 4-3. That’s the main focus on our deal right now.”

For that to happen, UCF will need to get off to a fast start just as it did against Temple. UConn’s defense has allowed opponents to outscore the Huskies 38-3 in the first quarter.

True freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton, who accounted for all three of the Knights’ touchdowns in the first half against the Owls, will be expected to open up the running game by establishing the passing game early.

“I told you that Temple had a great front seven. These guys are just as good,” UCF offensive coordinator Troy Walters said. “We’re gonna have to spread them out, we’re gonna have to do some things in the pass game in order to create the running game. I think we got better in the pass game. We can still take it up another notch and another level, but we’re definitely gonna have to throw the ball in order to beat these guys.”

UCF’s rushing offense, which has rushed for 207.67 yards per game, was shut down by Temple to just 86 yards. Saturday was the first time the team was held under 100 rushing yards through six games this season.

UConn’s rushing defense is holding opponents to just 129.9 yards per game on the ground, which ranks No. 26 in the nation. Anchoring the Huskies defense is a pair of junior linebackers in Vontae Diggs and Junior Joseph, who each have notched 40 tackles. Redshirt senior safety Obi Melifonwu leads the unit in tackles (57) to go along with a pair of interceptions.

Milton, who took seven sacks in the Temple loss, struggled to find consistency in the second half, as the Knights were held scoreless while retaining possession for less than nine minutes.

A major factor was the 110 penalty yards on 12 flags the Knights suffered—two for unsportsmanlike conduct. The Huskies, on the other hand, are No. 2 in penalty yards per game, surrendering just 29 yards per game in penalties.

“We’re maturing all the time,” Frost said. “Penalties are just one of the problems… Offensively, we had the ball inside their territory four or five more times after we had 25 points, and three of the times, penalties took us out of there and cost us from getting the score that would win the game.”

UConn enters this weekend looking to rebound from a 42-27 loss to USF in which the Bulls erupted for half their points in the fourth quarter.

The Huskies are led by redshirt junior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, who continues to spark most of UConn’s offense, combining for a total of nine touchdowns this season. Shirreffs dual-threat ability will be a priority for the Knights, averaging 226.9 passing yards per game along with 33 rushing yards per game.

Shirreffs’ main target, senior receiver Noel Thomas, leads the team with 758 receiving yards, three touchdowns and an average of 108.3 receiving yards per game.

“They have a special receiver,” Chinander said. “He’s caught a lot of balls. He’s making things happen. I think their quarterback is a big, tough kid. More like a fullback runner. He wants to run it, but he’s a tough runner instead of some of those guys. He’s not like Johnny Manziel where he’s going to shake and bake everybody. He’s going to try to run you over.”

Both schools will be without their starting left guards. For UCF, sophomore Tyler Hudanick is out the remainder of the season with an injured knee suffered against Temple.

Sophomore receiver Tristan Payton will also serve a one-game suspension for violating team rules. Two UConn redshirt freshmen, defensive lineman Felton Blackwell and linebacker Nazir Williams, were arrested this week for marijuana possession and will be suspended, as well.

“Listen, [there’re] lessons our whole team is learning every single day,” Frost said. “We’ve learned a lot of them already this year. Some were easy lessons to learn, some were really hard to swallow.”

This will be the fourth time UCF and UConn will meet, with the Huskies leading the all-time series 2-1. Two years ago, UConn gave UCF its first AAC loss since transferring from Conference USA beginning in the 2013 season. The Huskies also rolled over UCF 40-13 last season at Bright House Networks Stadium.

The Civil Conflict will kick off at noon at Pratt & Whitney Stadium will be broadcast on ESPNEWS.