Why are the UCF Knights unbeaten and one win away from a second straight Group of Five championship and “New Year’s Six” bowl bid?
Why are the USF Bulls 7-5 and the owners of a failed season which was once 7-0?
You saw why on Friday evening in Raymond James Stadium, even as the UCF-USF rivalry was overshadowed by the gruesome, severe injury suffered by UCF star McKenzie Milton in the second quarter.
When any player suffers a severe injury, a stadium is hushed and all the energy of a big game is brought to a halt. It is easy to speak of heartbreak when a game is lost on the final play, but a serious injury reminds us what it truly means to suffer on a heartbreaking level. When a player of Milton’s greatness and stature is the injured player, such an event makes national news.
It takes so much of the oxygen out of the stadium and casts a pall over the proceedings. As much as UCF and its fans want to get a spot in the College Football Playoff and hunger for another chance to beat the big boys in January, Milton’s health is the only thing which REALLY matters right now. Knowing he will heal; knowing he will recover; knowing he will have a full life is the only thing which truly counts. That has to be said before anything else this Friday night.
Having acknowledged that, we can go forward with an understanding of why two football teams in the state of Florida stand in such different places on Thanksgiving Friday.
USF played as hard as many people expected it would. Effort was not something the Bulls lacked on this day. They made it hard for UCF to play — before and after Milton got injured. USF intercepted Milton in the first quarter and started a drive in the UCF red zone. USF was still right there with a chance to win the game late in the third quarter, down 17-10. USF played with a level of toughness which — had it existed at other points in the month of November — might have created a 10-2 team instead of the 7-5 team which will lament a lost month and a season which didn’t make the cut.
That toughness, however, was not accompanied by a sense of the moment.
It wasn’t accompanied by clever play calls from offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, who saw how flinty and hard-nosed the UCF defensive front was playing, but refused to pass the ball in short-yardage situations with the tackle box stuffed to the point of overflowing.
That toughness wasn’t accompanied by an ability to maintain focus on defense once the offense finally got off the deck and pulled within 17-10. UCF had stalled for a full quarter, enabling USF to find a pathway back into the game. One more defensive stand would have given the Bulls a chance to tie.
That’s precisely when they let down their guard. Such is the difference between an unbeaten team and a five-loss team.
USF’s physical toughness was not accompanied by competent coaching — not when Charlie Strong punted down 24-10 on fourth and two near midfield early in the fourth quarter. That’s coaching malpractice of the highest (or lowest?) order. UCF promptly drove down the field for a game-clinching touchdown. Strong essentially quit on his players with that move. His players reacted accordingly. That’s why USF is where it is, at the end of a road to nowhere. All the bad habits which persisted in the 7-0 start were never addressed. The Bulls paid a huge price as a result.
Then shift to the Knights. They took the opposite road compared to USF. When asked questions, they answered. When put under pressure, they didn’t sweat. When punched, they punched back. Every time — not just this game, not just this season, but the past two years — UCF has been hit hard, it has responded with focus and fury. It responded with poise and composure in its most recent game against Memphis, which gives the Knights reason to be confident about next week’s AAC title game, even without Milton on the field. It responded the right way against USF.
Milton’s interception in the first quarter was met with zero panic. The defense stood tall inside its own 3-yard line to keep the game scoreless.
Milton’s injury? No collapse — and not even stagnation. UCF scored a quick 10 points after the injury to build a working margin which came in handy when USF scored its touchdown late in the third quarter.
USF’s touchdown? UCF promptly pushed its lead back to 14 points on the next drive, with Darriel Mack, Jr. showing the winning qualities this whole team — not just Milton — has exhibited since the start of the 2017 campaign.
The UCF football family is crying tears, carrying a broken heart, and absorbing the anguish of seeing Milton, a beloved teammate, suffer so profoundly That same family showed how united and resolute it truly is on Friday, banding together and showing enormous determination when so many other teams — if placed in a similar situation — would have evaporated into helplessness and confusion.
No one would have held it against UCF for losing focus. No one would have blamed the Knights for faltering after their best player was not only knocked out of the game, but dealt a blow which jeopardized his health and well-being. It is hard to stay interested in football when something like that happens.
Much love for Knight Nation 😘 pic.twitter.com/uO1G0xcI99
— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) November 24, 2018
Again, the well-being of Milton is everyone’s first focus tonight — at UCF, and throughout the college football community. Having acknowledged what really counts — more than the outcome of a game — it can still be said that the Knights have shown that they are so much more than just their brilliant quarterback. It is why they are unbeaten heading into the AAC Championship Game for the second straight college football season.
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