(Photo by Adrian J. Hernandez / New Day Review)
ORLANDO, Fla. – With 4:36 left to play in the second quarter in a Week 5 matchup with the University of Memphis, the University of Central Florida found itself buried at its own four-yard line. The Knights would have to venture 96 yards if they wanted to score. But when quarterback McKenzie Milton handed the ball off to running-back Adrian Killins, that trek to the end zone seemed a little shorter.
Spectrum Stadium would erupt with cheers, as Killins would beat his own tied school record of an 87-yard run from his freshman season and score the longest play from scrimmage to date in the NCAA in 2017. The fans’ excitement carried over to the bench as well.
“I really wanted to run on the field with him,” freshman utility player Otis Anderson said on Oct. 2. “That’s my boy. So, I was proud that he ended up getting the record. That just makes us feel better as a whole. It helps the team out a lot. Everybody knew he was a weapon, but now they really have to worry about him. That makes me feel good.”
Killins’ run accounted for 96 of UCF’s 350 rushing yards against Memphis, as he finished with 115 yards and a touchdown on nine carries (12.8 yards per carry). Taj McGowan added 63 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries (5.2 yards per carry), and Milton rushed for 88 yards on 11 carries (8.0 yards per carry).
The Knights’ season-high in rushing yards against Memphis is a stark difference from what UCF ran for in the beginning of the season. In the home-opener against Florida International University, UCF only rushed for 148 yards on 45 carries for a paltry 3.3 yards per attempt. Head coach Scott Frost and offensive coordinator and wide-receivers coach Troy Walters have since made it a primary objective to improve the run game.
Improvement came the next game against the University of Maryland, as the team ran for 250 yards on 39 attempts for 6.4 yards per carry. Against Memphis, UCF was more efficient and earned its 350 yards on 49 carries for 7.1 yards per rush. UCF running-backs coach Ryan Held doesn’t just attribute that success to the running-backs, however. He believes the Knights’ running success has been because of a team effort.
“The running-backs did some good things on Saturday, but, let’s be honest, it starts up front,” Held said after practice on Oct. 3. “It starts with the quarterbacks making the reads, the receivers getting the blocks. So, we’re a part of it, and there was some good stuff, but it’s a team effort for our guys to have success running the ball.”
UCF’s win over Memphis was the first time the Knights played a full game without perennial starter Jawon Hamilton, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury against Maryland. Without Hamilton, veterans like Killins and McGowan and first-year players like Anderson and Cordarrian Richardson have shown they’re ready to fill the void.
“You never wanna lose anybody, you know, but it’s the next-man-up mentality,” Held said. “So, everybody saw it as an opportunity, and we feel bad for Ham, but, you know, he’ll come back better than ever. But the next guy moves up. Otis Anderson can play running-back, too. He had some really good plays as well. Trying to get Cordarrian Richardson up to speed, you know, being a freshman. You know, he’s got all the talent in the world. We just get him to continue to get better.
“Taj stepped his game up. A.K. Greg McCrae does a lot of good things there. You know, he’s a kid I wouldn’t have any qualms with putting in the game. So, we got four or five kids that give us some flexibility at the running-back spot.”
After 439 passing yards paced the Knights’ offense in the season-opening win over FIU, UCF’s rushing attack has since led the offense to victories. In its dominating wins over Maryland and Memphis, UCF rushed for a combined 600 yards.
Even with the Knights’ recent effectiveness of the run game, Frost is still not satisfied. He wants to see the it become better, by creating more space this week against the University of Cincinnati and beyond.
“I think we can get better [in the run game],” Frost said on Oct. 2. “We need to get to the point we can our base stuff and get yards, and that comes down to dominating people on the front line and in the trenches, blocking on the perimeter, hit-and-runs. Right now, I think we’re making good decisions, and the ball’s getting to the right place. We got the type of athletes, now, that can break a big play if they have a little bit of space, so I wanna see us create space more often.”
UCF travels to Ohio to face the Cincinnati Bearcats for its first American Athletic Conference road game of the season. The game starts at 8 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPNU.
For more on the Knights, as they travel to Cincinnati for their first conference road game of 2017, follow Ryan Weiss on Twitter at @NDR_RyanWeiss.