TAMPA (UCFKnights.com) – This one was for 10.
The UCF football team won the War On I-4 vs. South Florida Friday evening at Raymond James Stadium, but lost their quarterback. McKenzie Milton suffered a terrible injury in the second quarter and was taken to a Tampa hospital.
Much like the way they circled around him as he was being treated and carted off the field, the Knights (11-0, 8-0) rallied around him to pick up an emotional 38-10 victory over the rival Bulls.
“Our guys care deeply about everyone on our football team, and certainly McKenzie as well,” UCF head coach Josh Heupel said. “You could tell by their reaction, wanting to be over near him, by him, their support for him, with everything that was going on in that moment. It’s hard. I’m proud of our kids. The resiliency to come back from something like that … because this game did matter. I’m proud of the way they finished the ball game.”
The Knights were leading 7-0 when Milton left the game. One play later, it was 10-0 as senior Matthew Wright buried a 42-yard field goal. Milton had given his team that seven-point lead with a 14-yard scoring strike to Gabriel Davis.
Senior running back Greg McCrae said his team played for Milton following the injury.
“It is heartbreaking because McKenzie Milton is a great person,” McCrae said. “It isn’t about McKenzie Milton the football player that you guys see all the time, it’s about him as a person. Seeing that happen to him is devastating to the whole team. We rallied around that and used that as motivation and energy to play for him. We played for 10.”
McCrae and the Knights’ offense picked up the running game in Milton’s absence, while backup Darriel Mack Jr. gained his footing behind center. McCrae, who gashed the Bulls all night, extended the UCF lead to 17-0 with a 40-yard touchdown run with five minutes left in the second quarter. South Florida managed a field goal just before halftime to make it 17-3 at the intermission.
The Knights’ offense didn’t get into full gear in the second half until late in the third quarter. Meanwhile, the Bulls put together an 8-play, 86-yard scoring drive to pull within a touchdown, 17-10, late in the third.
But that was all the Knights’ defense would allow. UCF allowed just 309 yards of offense, held South Florida to 5-of-18 on third down and made two huge fourth-down stops deep in UCF territory in the first quarter.
“They have (risen) to the occasion,” Heupel said. “They’re playing great team defense. Everyone’s playing assignment-sound. It starts with our guys up front. They penetrated, played on the other side of the line of scrimmage in the run game, they created pressure on the quarterback. We played tight coverage on the back end as well. We have tackled really well the last couple weeks. It’s been a big key.”
McCrae and the Knights’ running game began to dominate late in the third quarter. McCrae rushed for 71 yards and a score in the first half, but went for 110 in the second half alone, en route to a 181-yard, three-touchdown performance. As a whole, UCF rushed for 210 yards in the second half and a season-high 391 in the game.
McCrae turned in a highlight-reel 39-yard scamper with 13 seconds left in the third period to put his team back on top by two touchdowns, 24-10. He tacked on a 31-yard burst to paydirt early in the third quarter. McCrae finished the night averaging 11.3 yards per carry.
“It was a great job by the offensive line and they picked up a lot of blocks,” McCrae said. “The holes were there and we made great adjustments on the fly. The o-line provided a lot of holes for me to run through and I just took it.”
Senior running back Taj McGowan, who rushed for 72 yards on 11 carries, put an exclamation point on the victory with a 4-yard TD run with just less than three minutes remaining. The Knights’ defense wasn’t about to be upstaged. The Black and Gold defenders added a second exclamation point with three consecutive sacks, leaving UCF just 55 seconds to run off the clock to make the War On I-4 victory official.
For the night, UCF’s defense turned in four sacks, five tackles-for-loss, six pass breakups and an interception. Nate Evans led the way with 10 total tackles, including one behind the line of scrimmage. A.J. Wooten, Kenny Turnier, Gabriel Luyanda and Anthony Montalvo all added sacks. Richie Grant recorded five solo stops and kept UCF’s consecutive games with a turnover streak alive at 30 games with a first-quarter interception.
The Knights will return to action next weekend, hosting Memphis in the American Athletic Conference Championship. The title game is set for Saturday, 3:30 p.m. at Spectrum Stadium with coverage on ABC.