Life has a way of bringing us back to familiar positions.
We recognize, at various moments in life, that we have somehow been here before. Sometimes that sense is crystal-clear. Other times that sense is vague but still strong, like a scent we pick up on but can’t precisely locate.
The UCF Knights are returning to a familiar position — on multiple levels, not just one — when they meet the Memphis Tigers in this upcoming Saturday’s AAC Championship Game.
Familiar position? Which one? There are so many ways in which UCF is coming back to a place it knows well.
UCF is obviously reuniting with Memphis — that’s familiar. The Knights have played Memphis three times in the past 14 months. They played Memphis in their previous AAC title game. They played the Tigers earlier this season and struggled, much as they might be expected to struggle on Saturday now that McKenzie Milton is out with an injury.
UCF is once again entering the AAC Championship Game with an unbeaten record. It is once again hosting Memphis on a day when national observers — given the comparative lack of other games across the country (only the SEC title game will compete with UCF’s game in the mid-afternoon television window) — will be able to watch the Knights more than they likely have at previous periods in the season. UCF is once again playing for the Group of Five championship and a New Year’s Six bowl, not just the AAC crown. UCF is once again being asked to shoulder a lot of pressure on its home field against Memphis and coach Mike Norvell.
All that is familiar. Yet, another element of familiarity might become the most crucial part of this recognizable rendezvous with destiny for the Knights: Darriel Mack, Jr. will once again start at quarterback.
You might recall that we at Florida Football Insiders were on top of the story attached to the UCF-East Carolina game in late October. UCF head coach Josh Heupel told ESPN announcers nothing before that game which suggested or indicated that Milton would not play. Yet, when kickoff time arrived and the contest began, No. 10 wasn’t on the field in the Knights’ offensive huddle. The announcers didn’t know what to make of the situation because Heupel hadn’t given them a heads-up. Various onlookers wondered what the problem possibly could have been. Speculation ran rampant for a brief stretch of time.
Ultimately, this was a precautionary move to rest Milton and enable him to heal. At the time, though, few people outside the UCF inner circle were aware of what was going on. Confusion about the situation — plus the fact that this was ECU, one of the weakest teams in the AAC — made it easy to downplay the significance of Mack replacing Milton.
Now, though, that one start looms larger than anyone ever could have expected a month ago.
Mack can say that he has started a game this season. This therefore won’t be his first rodeo. I won’t sit here and say that means EVERYTHING, or that it is a massive difference compared to an alternate scenario in which he didn’t play against East Carolina. However, Mack DOES have that taste of preparing for a game as the starter. He can very consciously know what it feels like to take the huddle for the first series of a game and endure the butterflies in the stomach.
Stepping in for Milton in an emergency — as he did last Friday against South Florida — is another form of experience Mack can point to, but in relationship to this upcoming Saturday against Memphis, the ECU game now claims more prominence.
Mack had thrown only nine passes in mop-up work before that East Carolina start. Mack didn’t complete a high percentage of his passes — as was the case in his partial game versus USF this past Friday — but it is instructive and important that he didn’t throw an interception in those nine throws.
Against ECU, he didn’t throw an interception, either. Against USF: also no interceptions.
Mack — against ECU — ran for just over five yards per carry. He wasn’t dazzling, he wasn’t overwhelming, but he did what backup quarterbacks are fundamentally supposed to do. He did what coaches realistically expect backup quarterbacks to do: Avoid losing the game with bad mistakes.
Mack isn’t a crisp passer. Right now in his evolutionary arc, he is more of a runner. No one expects him to give UCF a full playbook or an imposing offense. As long as he enables this offense to become functional on a basic level, such that UCF can control the ball and establish field position, the Knights can — with their defense — leverage situations and gain the upper hand.
It sounds so weird to say that — “use your defense” — but UCF’s defense is playing lights-out ball. The Knights are resolute in their own third of the field. They are shutting down the big play. They are playing with energy and toughness. They are holding the fort when the offense struggles. The Knights’ defense has, at times, carried the team the past two games.
At previous points in the season, the notion of Darriel Mack Jr. giving this team a chance to win might have seemed ludicrous. Now, that notion isn’t ludicrous at all. Moreover, after a Week 13 in which Memphis quarterback Brady White constantly put the ball in traffic and threw multiple interceptions for the second straight game, UCF knows it will have a chance to pluck more takeaways against the Tigers. If Mack can continue to play turnover-free ball and run for first downs in key situations, that might be enough. UCF won’t need to cultivate a big-play passing game to succeed. This team can win an old-school fistfight in the trenches. That’s not what outsiders were prepared to believe this team could do, but Heupel has not allowed his team to get soft.
It can win a bare-knuckle brawl if that is what Memphis wants.
UCF’s players don’t know what it is like to play an AAC Championship Game without McKenzie Milton, but they know so much about competing, bouncing back, and adjusting when times get rough.
The UCF Knights are back in a familiar position, aware of the reality that life has come full-circle for them. If they play like a team which is comfortable in its pressure-packed surroundings, the dream of another perfect regular season in Orlando will once again become reality.
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