UCF ral­lies to de­feat Mem­phis, win AAC

The Bradenton Herald (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY MATT MURSCHEL

OR­LANDO

Through its 24-game win­ning streak, UCF has an­swered count­less chal­lenges.

Through thick and thin, through dou­ble-digit deficits and de­bil­i­tat­ing in­juries, the Knights have taken every­one’s best shot and some­how, some­way sur­vived.

Even when faced with its big­gest chal­lenge to date: down 17 points to Mem­phis in the Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence Cham­pi­onship Game Sat­ur­day and with­out their star quar­ter­back McKen­zie Mil­ton, the Knights some­how, some­way mounted an epic come­back and beat the Tigers, 56-41.

“This group han­dles ad­ver­sity bet­ter than any group that I’ve been around,” UCF coach Josh He­u­pel told the ABC broad­cast team af­ter the win. “… This is a cham­pi­onship team.”

Backup quar­ter­back Dar­riel Mack Jr. scored six to­tal touch­downs in just his sec­ond ca­reer start as No. 8 UCF outscored Mem­phis 35-3 in the sec­ond half to re­main un­de­feated and cap­ture its sec­ond con­sec­u­tive con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship.

Things didn’t look so good for the Knights at the start.

Mem­phis re­cov­ered a Mack fum­ble at UCF’s 27-yard line and two plays later, run­ning back Dar­rell Hen­der­son rum­bled in from 12 yards out for an­other touch­down to push the lead to 14-0.

UCF re­bounded on its next posses­sion, with the Knights driv­ing 65 yards on a drive capped by a 14-yard touch­down run by Greg McCrae that sliced

into the lead to 14-7.

But those good feel­ings didn’t last long as Tigers run­ning back Patrick Tay­lor out­raced the UCF de­fense, scor­ing on a 72-yard touch­down run that pushed the Mem­phis back ahead 21-7 mid­way through the first quar­ter.

Mack moved the UCF of­fense down­field on the next posses­sion, but he was pres­sured on a thir­dand-five and fum­bled the foot­ball away for the sec­ond time.

Mem­phis drove down to the UCF 19-yard line be­fore set­tling for a 36-yard field goal by Ri­ley Pat­ter­son that ex­tended the Tigers’ lead to 24-7.

UCF put to­gether its best of­fen­sive posses­sion of the game, driv­ing 72 yards be­fore Mack took it upon him­self to rush six yards in for the score. But as he dove into the end zone, he was hit and the ball flipped out. Tight end Michael Col­u­biale even­tu­ally re­cov­ered the foot­ball for the UCF touch­down.

Hen­der­son once again de­liv­ered a crush­ing blow for Mem­phis, this time scor­ing an 81-yard touch­down run on the sec­ond play of the Tigers’ next posses­sion. It ex­tended Mem­phis’ lead to 31-14 with 11:24 left in the first half.

Hen­der­son racked up 166 yards and three touch­downs on just six car­ries at that point.

UCF cut the lead to 31-21 with just un­der three min­utes left in the first half af­ter the Knights drove 90 yards be­fore Mack would loft a pass to red­shirt sopho­more Jake Hescock in the back of the end zone for a four-yard score. It was Mack’s first ca­reer touch­down and it cut the lead to 10.

Af­ter the score, He­u­pel paced the side­lines wav­ing his hands into the air try­ing to get the crowd amped up for the de­fense.

But af­ter the Knights forced a three-and-out, Otis Ander­son fum­bled the punt and Mem­phis took over at the UCF 31yard line. Five plays later, Hen­der­son took the snap out of the Wild­cat for­ma­tion and lofted a four-yard pass to Sean Dykes that ex­tended the lead to 3821.

As they have all sea­son, the Knights re­grouped at half­time and won the piv­otal third quar­ter.

UCF took the sec­ond­half kick­off and drove to its own 46-yard line be­fore Mack con­nected with Otis Ander­son down the left side for a 54-yard touch­down that cut the lead to 38-28 with 12 min­utes left in the third quar­ter.

Af­ter forc­ing a three­and-out, Ander­son gave the Knights a spark, re­turn­ing a punt 43 yards into Mem­phis ter­ri­tory. Mack did the rest, div­ing into the end zone for four­yard touch­down that cut the lead to 38-35.

Mem­phis added a field goal to ex­tend the lead to 41-35 but Mack once again stepped up af­ter lead­ing UCF on a long drive, find- ing the end zone on a two-yard touch­down run that gave the Knights the first lead of the game at 42-41.

UCF then hit the gas and never looked back, shut­ting out the Tigers while ex­tend­ing their lead in front of a rau­cous crowd.

Amid the No. 10 jer­seys and leis hon­or­ing Mil­ton, tele­vi­sion cam­eras cap­tured his mom stream­ing the clos­ing sec­onds of the game and ju­bi­lant postgame cel­e­bra­tion for her son via FaceTime.

The Knights re­main per­fect and will wait to learn their bowl fate Sun­day.

Thanks to a weaker strength of sched­ule, most ex­pect UCF to earn a bid in a New Year’s Six Ac­cess Bowl rather than claim­ing a play­off semi­fi­nal bid and a chance to play for a na­tional ti­tle.

He­u­pel was asked what he would like to say to the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee.

He told the ABC broad­cast team, “You look at what this pro­gram’s done for two straight years. This team’s got the heart of a cham­pion. They de­serve to go prove it on the field.”

STEPHEN M. DOW­ELL Or­lando Sen­tinel via TNS

UCF quar­ter­back Dar­riel Mack Jr. screams in cel­e­bra­tion af­ter a touch­down dur­ing the AAC Cham­pi­onship game against Mem­phis on Sat­ur­day.

JOHN RAOUX AP

Cen­tral Florida run­ning back Greg McCrae runs un­touched for a 14-yard touch­down against Mem­phis dur­ing the first half Sat­ur­day.

STEPHEN M. DOW­ELL Or­lando Sen­tinel via TNS

UCF coaches and play­ers cel­e­brate af­ter win­ning the AAC Cham­pi­onship game against Mem­phis on Sat­ur­day at Spec­trum Sta­dium in Or­lando. UCF won 56-41.

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