Knights 1st-rate on 3rd down

Avoid­ing neg­a­tive plays, re­liance on smart QB eases hunt for yardage

Orlando Sentinel - - SPORTS WEEKEND - By Matt Murschel

Few teams have been as ef­fi­cient with the foot­ball on third down as UCF.

The Knights have con­verted 59 per­cent of their third downs this sea­son (39 of 66), which ranks No. 2 in the coun­try en­ter­ing this week be­hind only NC State (60.87 per­cent).

“To be hon­est, it all starts on first and sec­ond down,” UCF firstyear coach Josh He­u­pel said. “We have very few neg­a­tive plays that al­low you to be in mostly man­age­able sit­u­a­tions. When you have a re­ally good quar­ter­back, that helps you con­vert on third downs be­cause he’s go­ing to make smart de­ci­sions with the foot­ball.

“It starts up front and be­ing in man­age­able sit­u­a­tions, be­ing pro­duc­tive with the foot­ball on first and sec­ond downs and be­ing in short yardage sit­u­a­tions.”

No. 10 UCF (5-0, 2-0 AAC) looks to con­tinue that trend this week­end as the Knights travel to Mem­phis to take on the Tigers (4-2, 1-2 AAC) at Lib­erty Bowl Memo­rial Sta­dium Satur­day. The game kicks off at 3:30 p.m. and will be broad­cast re­gion­ally on ABC or ESPN2.

The Knights have con­verted 65 per­cent of their third-down at­tempts span­ning five or fewer yards (22 of 34) and 53 per­cent of third-down at­tempts (17 of 32) span­ning at least six yards.

Last week against SMU, UCF was 2 of 6 (33 per­cent) on third downs of five or fewer yards and 6 of 10 (60 per­cent) on third downs of at least six yards. Two of those con­ver­sions re­sulted in touch­downs: a 15-yard run by Adrian Killins and a 14-yard pass from quar­ter­back McKen­zie Mil­ton to

Dredrick Snel­son.

“I think the coaches have done a great job in game prep­ping and know­ing what we’re go­ing to ex­pect on third down,” Mil­ton said of the team’s abil­ity to con­vert on third downs. “First and sec­ond down dic­tates what you're do­ing on third. If you get neg­a­tives on first and sec­ond [downs] and put your­self in third-and-sev­en­pluses, it’s hard to con­vert.”

Mil­ton is 19-of-31 pass­ing (61 per­cent) for 352 yards with three touch­downs and an in­ter­cep­tion on third downs this sea­son. He’s also rushed for 64 yards and a touch­down on 10 third-down car­ries.

“Hon­estly, we just try to score ev­ery time we touch the ball. That’s my mind­set — to try to score,” Snel­son said.

Se­nior left tackle Wy­att Miller knows how crit­i­cal those early downs can be for the of­fense tries to get some­thing go­ing.

“The thing about third-down con­ver­sions is like what coach He­u­pel says, you're not go­ing to put your­self in a bad si­t­u­a­tion if you've done your job well on first and sec­ond down and that's what we take pride in,” Miller said. “So when it comes down to third down, we want third-and-three or third-and-two or third-and-one and we’re go­ing to set our­selves up to be suc­cess­ful.”

Adds re­ceiver Tre Nixon, “You know, just ex­e­cut­ing the plays to the high­est level, that's what it ul­ti­mately comes down to.”

Thir­teen times this sea­son, UCF has faced a third down of at least 10 yards, with the Knights con­vert­ing five of those at­tempts (38 per­cent).

Mem­phis ranks ninth in the Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence in third-down de­fense af­ter al­low­ing op­po­nents to con­vert more than 43 per­cent on third downs this sea­son. The Tigers have twice al­lowed teams to con­vert more than 50 per­cent of the time (South Alabama, Tu­lane).

Mean­while, the Knights have held teams to a 38 per­cent con­ver­sion rate on third down.

For Miller and the Knights, it’s all about get­ting early yards.

“If we do our job on first or sec­ond down, it doesn’t put that stress on us on third down,” he said. “But even if we put our­selves in those sit­u­a­tions, it’s just a job. Us di­al­ing it to what needs to be done and how we ex­e­cute.”


UCF’s McKen­zie Mil­ton drops back to pass against SMU. Mil­ton and the Knights are among the na­tion’s lead­ers in third-down con­ver­sions.

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