MEMPHIS (UCFKnights.com) – Since head coach Josh Heupel arrived at UCF back in December, he’s been talking to the Knights about overcoming adversity.
Heupel met with the ABC broadcasters calling the game Friday night at the team hotel. With defensive end Titus Davis and quarterback McKenzie Milton in the room, he joked about how they had heard the message ad nauseum. Saturday afternoon and evening at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, his team had the team to show it had been listening.
The UCF defense pitched a shutout in the second half, the offense managed a pair of second-half touchdowns in a driving rain and the Knights held on for a 31-30 road victory to extend the nation’s longest winning streak to 19 games.
The Knights gave up 30 points in the first half, scored just 17 and not much was going right. The offense was came into the game No. 2 in the nation in third-down conversions was just 1-of-5 on third down in the first half. The defense allowed 339 yards, including 222 rushing yards, in the first half.
The Knights had never trailed by more than three points this season. In Saturday’s contest vs. Memphis, they trailed 30-14 at one point. A solid two-minute drill at the end of the first half that ended in a Matthew Wright field goal pulled UCF within 13 at the break, 30-17.
Early in the third quarter, the Knights’ defense showed it had made some halftime adjustments, getting three straight stops. Unfortunately for the Black and Gold, the offense couldn’t take advantage of the first two. It looked like they squandered three straight opportunities to cut into the lead with 4th-and-1 at their own 29-yard line late in the quarter. But head coach Josh Heupel showed guts and trust in his team.
With their heavy package in the game – including 315-pound defensive lineman Trysten Hill playing fullback – the Knights went for it. Hill blasted through the hole and destroyed a linebacker, as Milton handed the ball to running back Taj McGowan. McGowan followed Hill into the Memphis secondary and outran the Tigers to the end zone for a 71-yard score to make it 30-24.
“Credit to the defense for shutting them out the second half because that’s really what we needed,” McGowan said. “As a team, we thrive off of adversity, so that situation didn’t faze us at all. We knew there was going to be a turning point.”
While the defense continued to hold, the Knights entered the fourth quarter needing a touchdown to take the lead. On its first possession of the final period, UCF took over at its own 26-yard line. A team that struggled to convert on third down all night faced 3rd-and-11 from its own 37. With the rain still falling, Milton zipped a laser to tight end Michael Colubiale. The result was a 24-yard gain to the Memphis 39. Two plays later, running back Greg McCrae scooted 24 yards to the Memphis 7-yard line.
Then, even though they all said they knew it already, Milton showed his team his heart and will to win. Milton’s took a zone read around the right end, reached the 1-yard line and tried to leap for the goal line. A Memphis defender hit him low and spun him head over heels in midair. But he landed with the ball across the goal line for the game-tying touchdown. Wright’s extra point gave UCF a 31-30 edge.
"We were up in the air about whether we were going to go for it or punt it and the whole offense agreed that we needed to go for it and we were all hyped up about it," McGowan added. "So, when Milton hiked the ball and Trysten cleaned his dude and I saw the hole and knew it was there. I wanted the first down and I think I got that and that’s all you can ask for. The touchdown was great. We needed that and I just want to do whatever can to help the team"
From there, the defense held three more times to preserve the victory. Heupel said he and his team learned a great deal about themselves Saturday in Memphis.
“I learned that we are going to operate as a team when adversity hits us,” Heupel said. “We’re going to compete with everything that we’ve got. We’re good enough with a lot of playmakers that you have to keep fighting when it’s not going your way, and you eventually turn it in the right direction. I think our team grew closer together through what happened today.”
Milton finished with 296 yards through the air with one passing and one rushing touhdown. McGowan led UCF with 81 yards rushing with two scores and was never stopped for a negative play. Davis recorded his second 100-yard receiving game of the year with a career-high 128 yards.
On the defensive side, Richie Grant posted 11 solo tackles, while Brendon Hayes notched a pair of tackles for loss, including a big sack to push the TIgers out of field-goal range with seven minutes to play. Nate Evans totaled nine tackles, seven solos, and a forced fumble.
UCF will travel to ECU next Saturday for a 7 p.m. kick on ESPN2.