UCF Football Preview: Knights Aim to Keep AAC Title Hopes Alive in Houston

University of Central Florida wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith runs the ball for an opening-drive 55-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 state of the University of Central Florida (4-3, 2-1 in American Athletic Conference) football program has changed so much since

A late October 59-10 loss to the Cougars at Bright House Networks Stadium went down as the fourth-worst defeat in UCF history. One day later, former Knights head coach George O’Leary resigned, making way for a new era in UCF football.

Now, in his first season as the Knights’ head coach, Scott Frost has experienced the highs and lows that come with rebuilding the Knights back to college-football relevancy.

“Coaching is funny,” Frost said at Monday’s game-week press conference. “Someone on my staff told me it’s so binary. It’s so win-lose, zero over one, but that’s the [nature of the] game, and we all love the game… Being able to compete and measure yourself as a coach, as a player, as a team every week, that makes it exciting. If you love competition, you wouldn’t want anything else.”

Entering the midway point of the season, UCF has made a steady return to AAC title contention after going winless last season. The Knights are ranked No. 3 in the East Division, separated by one game between the University of Temple (5-3, 3-1 in AAC) and University of South Florida (6-2, 3-1 in AAC).

“Our hopes are still alive,” redshirt senior linebacker Mark Rucker said after practice on Wednesday. “The goal for this team [is to] go to a bowl game, win a [conference] championship. I just want to make the experience happen for my team.”

The challenge will be as strong as ever against a Houston team that has peaked as high as No. 6 in the nation. But the Cougars have fallen off track since Navy knocked them out of national-title contention on Oct. 8 with a 46-40 win. Southern Methodist University furthered the derailing with a 38-16 win on Saturday over the Cougars.

“I was shocked, but SMU came out and played hard, so I know they’re gonna want to play their best game against us to make a statement,” UCF redshirt junior defensive lineman Tony Guerad said. “So we have to come with it.”

And just as he has this entire 2016 season with the rest of the opponents the Knights have faced, Frost isn’t taking the Cougars lightly, either.

“We expect to have a focused, upset Houston team when we go down there Saturday,” Frost said. “They’re still a really, really talented team. We’re going to have our hands full.”

In its last two contests, the Knights’ offense has relied heavily on its passing game to score points with five of UCF’s last six touchdowns coming off throws. The Knights are led by true freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton (960 passing yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions), who is coming off a career-high 317 passing yards and three touchdowns against the University of Connecticut.

“[McKenzie’s] done some really good things every game that he’s been in, but he played pretty consistently Saturday,” Frost said. “It’s a fun thing as a playcaller when you design something to work a certain way and the ball gets there right when it’s supposed to get there and it works.”

For offensive coordinator Troy Walters, the passing game will be integral to setting up the rushing attack. Through eight weeks, the Knights are ranked No. 51 in the nation, averaging 321 rushing yards per game.

“We want to be balanced. We want to be multiple,” Walters said after practice Wednesday. “We know going in, they’re going to [try to] eliminate the run game. We know going in we have to throw the ball… I think we set a standard in the past…and now we’ve got to keep improving this game.”

At Houston, the Knights’ offense will be stacked up against the No. 12 total defense in the country (312.1 yards allowed per game). But Houston’s defense has since teetered off in the last three weeks, allowing 115 points and 1,247 yards in that span. Cougars true freshman defensive tackle Ed Oliver (10.5 tackles for loss) anchors the unit, leads all defensive linemen in the nation with five pass breakups and is second on the team with 46 total tackles.

Conversely, Houston senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is as dangerous and skilled as any dual-threat quarterback the Knights will face this season. Ward is ranked as the fourth-highest in individual total offense and has a top-six rushing and passing grade, according to Pro Football Focus.

“He’s probably one of the best quarterbacks we’re going to face this year,” Guerad said. “We just gotta try our best to contain him and put some pressure on him.”

Guerad and the rest of the Knights defense will look to replicate SMU’s defensive success that held Ward to three rushing yards, his second-lowest rushing outing of the season.

“If we come together as a team, we’re pretty unstoppable,” Rucker said. “Everybody has their day. We’re gonna get after him and make this a good game.”

UCF leads the all-time series 5-2, including a 2-1 mark in Houston. The Knights have lost both games by scores of 59-10 and 51-13.

Kickoff is slated for noon on Saturday at TDECU Stadium and will be broadcast on ESPNU.