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What They Said: Championship Preview
November 30, 2018
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UCF Head Coach Josh Heupel
Opening statement…
“I appreciate everybody being here. Obviously we’re excited. For us, and our staff, coming in here in January and continuing to build this program, 11 months of work have gone into this. I’m proud of what our team has accomplished in the course of the season, the way they’ve competed, the way they’ve focused on the task at hand, and the family atmosphere that we’ve built inside of our building. I’m excited about this opportunity to go play for a championship. I have great respect for Coach Norvell, the Memphis Tigers and their entire program. I know our kids are excited to get out on the field tomorrow and go play.”

On this game being similar to the regular season game at Memphis…
“A lot of the personnel is the same. Some of it’s going to be different, obviously. Certainly with the injury at quarterback, we’ll be different. The teams have evolved and changed throughout the course of the season. Schematically, I think (teams) change, and because of personnel (teams) change as well. I think what you take away from the first ball game – and even from last year – I think the kids that played on the field obviously know each other…some of the one-on-one fights, whether it’s up front, out on the perimeter, they have familiarity with each other. You’re looking at two really good football teams that will go out and compete really hard for 60 minutes.”

On emotion before the game…
“I think both teams are going to play with great emotion, just because of the work that goes in, and the opportunity that you have. You build your season to go win a championship and both teams have that opportunity. Our kids are going to play with emotion. They’re going to play for themselves, they’re going to play for our program, they’re going to play for their brother that’s next to them on the football field, and they’ll play for McKenzie, who’s not there. I think controlling your emotions in a game like this, being a mature competitor, is always critical. I’m proud of the way that we’ve competed throughout the course of the season. We’ve handled adversity well. I expect us to do that again on Saturday.”

On McKenzie still helping with game plan…
“He’s certainly had a couple ideas like he always does about the game plan. It’s been great for him, just to be engaged and a part of the process, obviously, being away from us. To have a sense of normalcy, a little bit, I think it was good for the guys inside the meeting room to have a sense of normalcy, to have his personality, his input there, I think that’s a comfort for everyone inside that room as well.”

On preparing Darriel Mack Jr…
“Everyone’s thoughts and prayers inside of our program are with KZ, and we’ll continue to do that. At the same time, we have great competitors inside of our program. They understand the time, the energy and the effort that has gone into building our program and building this season to this point. Everyone wants to take full advantage of that. DJ’s extremely confident in himself. You’ve seen that when he’s had the opportunity to play. He’s fearless. He makes a good play, he comes back and plays the next play. He makes a bad play, he comes back and plays the next play. You can see that the guys around him have great confidence in him. For us as coaches, we’re not going to change who and what we are. We’re going to put the ball in his hands and go play ball. He’s had a great week of practice. He’s had a great week of preparation. Since East Carolina, I think he’s had a greater sense of urgency in the way he prepares, and because of that he’s practiced really well, and I expect him to perform that way.”

Comparing the style between Darriel and McKenzie…
“Sometimes kids get out there and get an opportunity to play, their sense of urgency in preparation can be heightened. I think that’s true of DJ. Physically, they’re built differently. Fundamentally, schematically, how we play really doesn’t change. We kind of do what we do. There will be subtle tweaks to maybe what one kid is more comfortable with vs. another. That’s true with every quarterback that I’ve had, but we won’t fundamentally what we do offensively.”

On the recent defensive success…
“We play with a physical presence. We play an attacking style of ball on that side of it. Since I was hired, what was important to me – we talk about UCFast here with what we do offensively – but we want to play with that same mentality on the other side of the ball and create negative plays. I just think we’ve continued to grow throughout the entire season in all three phases of the game, but certainly on the defensive side of the ball. To play great defense, everybody’s got to play assignment sound, you have to have great communication between the three levels, you have to play with great technique. Philosophically, we’re a little bit different from what they were doing the previous year. Our kids have grown. They’ve bought into our system and our playing with great intensity, great purpose, great technique and playing assignment sound. They’re tackling well in space and that’s why we’ve performed the way we have the last few games.”

On first playing without McKenzie…
“I don’t think there was a hangover. You saw the reaction from our sideline when they realized how serious it was. Our football team went over there. You saw the same reaction from the opposing sideline as well. I think that’s true of great players. They recognize that in McKenzie. Players have great respect for each other and the time and energy that people put into this game. Was there a hangover? No. He was carted off and our football team – many people said it – ‘we got a job to do. Let’s go play ball.’ Football is never going to be perfect. I think our kids went out and competed immediately. DJ got in the flow of the game, hit a couple shots and made some plays. I think we were resilient. That’s true of this football team. If you’re able to do what this football team has done this year, what this program has done the last two years, you’ve got a group of guys who can handle adversity and handle it really well.”

On Darriel getting experience earlier this season…
“I think that helped him a week ago when he got thrown in early in the second quarter. All your experiences at that position are going to help you as you continue going down the road, so those two experiences are going to help him in this football game.”

On the most all-conference awards in league history…
“I’m proud of the way our kids have played and performed this year. I’m proud of the work they’ve put in since we got here in January. We have a lot of great football players. A bunch of them got recognized. We’ve got a lot of players that are great football players that didn’t get recognized as well. Individual awards come with team success. We’ve had a ton of success on the football field. It was great to see that many of our players recognized as being elite performers inside of this league. I think a lot of them are recognized that way across the entire country.”

On game planning for a team you’ve seen so often…
“Playing them in the middle portion of the season, and as late as it is now, I think both teams have grown and changed in some respect throughout the course of the season. You have to do what your kids are comfortable with, so they know what to do, but at the same time find some ways to attack the other side of the football.”

On difficulty of beating same team multiple times…
“It’s difficult to beat a good team once, let alone beat them again. I, our coaching staff, and our players have great respect for Memphis and what they do, but each game is different. It unfolds differently. At the end of the day we need to be one play better than them, one point better than them. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that happens.”

On senior leadership…
“We have great leadership here. That’s why we’ve handled the transition so well in my opinion. Immediate buy-in, understanding what it takes to go be a champion, they’ve handled adversity and it’s come in a lot of different forms to our juniors and seniors inside of our program. They’ve handled it with great poise. They’ve been able to communicate to the younger players inside of our program how they need to handle it. That was a unique circumstance last week, but they have stayed focused on the task. That’s our preparation. When we get to kickoff on gameday, it’s just playing the next play. They’ve handled everything that’s been thrown at them in a great way and I expect them to do that again tomorrow.”

On the way the defense has been playing…
“I like the way we’ve continued to compete. We’ve given up yards. If you look at where we rank as far as points per game, we’ve done a tremendous job. They’ve played with great red zone defense. For the last couple of weeks they’ve been suffocating, both in the run game, penetrating, team tackling, guys rallying to the football, tight coverage on the back end. They’ve played a complete game the last few weeks and we need to play that way tomorrow.”

On a medical update on McKenzie…
“I don’t (have one). We’re going to let the family handle what they want to be out there publicly. I don’t anticipate (him to be a part of our pre-game preparation) right now.”

On key to the game…
“When you play in a championship game, there’s a lot of keys to being successful. At the end of the day, kids have to handle adversity. You’ve got to be able to move onto the next play in all three phases of the game. Just go play and compete. Whether the previous play was a positive one or the opposing team made a play, just go compete and play like it’s 0-0 for 60 minutes.”

Memphis Head Coach Mike Norvell
On reaching the American Athletic Conference Championship Game…
I'm proud of our football team to find a way back for a second conference championship game in the last two years. The things that we've seen throughout this year and some of the adversity that shown up, at one point 1-3 in conference play, and went into a bye week to continue to build off the culture and the values of our program, our guys did an incredible job responding to win our last four to make it here to the championship game. It's an incredible feat, and we know that we find an outstanding opponent here in UCF, a team that has been dominant throughout the season for the last two years. To be able to come back to Orlando for one game, one opportunity to be in the American Conference champions, our kids are extremely excited and honored to be in this position.

On the emotion of playing in the game…
I think each experience is unique to itself, and what our team has been through and the way they matured throughout this season has been a special journey. Last week, we were able to defeat Houston, and it was a wide range of emotions. Knowing that we would be coming back to Orlando to compete against one of the best teams in the country, a top-10 opponent, and with the opportunity to achieve one of the goals that we set out for at the beginning of the year, you can't ask for much more. I believe every experience that we've had helped prepare us for this opportunity. You walk in and you see that trophy, and that's what has what we aspire to to achieve. We know it's going to be a great challenge. We're looking forward to the matchup. Our team our team has done a wonderful job in preparing for a chance to kick it off.

On the injury to McKenzie Milton…
I just hated to see that for that young man. I was truly heartbroken because when you play in this confernece, and we played we UCF three times in the last two years, and I've got a chance to compete against one of the greatest competitors in college football. Everytime I've been around him at media days or whatever it was, he's just a genuine young man. You'd hate to see anybody go down but somebody of his status or what he's done and how he impacts the game. Now, you come into this game, I say we're preparing to go out there against the UCF football team, and that's what this is a special team that we'll play. There's a lot of great individuals, but how they respond to any adversity seen, and the way that they continue to grow as a program after a coaching change from last year to this year, and some of the things that they faced this year, it's impressive to watch. Injuries are a part of the game, unfortunately. You have to prepare for whoever steps on that field and get out there and put the best foot forward and our team is excited for the opportunity to go do that.

On how the team has grown…
We had high emotions because we didn't know we had to win to have the opportunity to get to this point. We've got to just truly focus on ourselves. Don't get distracted by anything on the outside, whether it's the in the crowd, whether it's the weather or anything that might show up. You we've got to stay focused on doing our job. I think our team has grown so much through every experience. Last week against Houston, we started off, we probably feel a little emotionally geared up to start that game and didn't play our best ball those first couple series, but then we calmed down and got into the flow of the game. I thought we were slotted high level so it's going be a lot same to more. We know there's going to be momentum swings. Just like any time you go on the road, you've got to be able to control which you can control and just stay focused on doing the job and the task at hand. I think our team will be ready for that. We faced adversity all through the seasons, so we have to build of those experiences that we've faced.

On making back to The American Championship Game…
It means everything to represent the West Division in back-to-back years. It’s something we take a great deal of pride in, because there’s a lot of great football teams in this league. Each week, you have to bring you’re A game to be able to battle through and find our way to the championship game for the second year in a row. It is a heck of an accomplishment. When it comes down to one game and 60 minutes, the winner of tomorrow’s contest will get a trophy. That’s something our kids are passionate about. It would be a symbolic achievement for our program in continuing the progression of where we want to go in the long term. I’m really proud that we have the opportunity to get to this point.

On how last year’s game plays in preparation…
Our focus is on this game. We look back at the experience of playing them during the season, and we have to be better than what we were at the midpoint when we played them in Memphis. We shouldn’t need to motivate our guys. We’re playing for the American Athletic Conference Championship. We’re playing a top-10 team in the country. It’s going to be a heck of a game and a heck of a matchup. We have been here before. We’re familiar with the personnel that we’re going to go up against. I’ve been very pleased with how our kids have approached this week. They practiced at an elite level throughout it. We know that the only chance we have to be successful is to maximize on every opportunity. We’re excited to kick it off tomorrow.

On how Memphis has handled adversity…
I’ve seen this team mature. Coming into the season, there were expectations. We all have high expectations of getting to this point and being able to play in this game. We knew there was also the challenge. We only have eight seniors. It's the smallest senior class I've ever been around. I've seen guys really emerge as the leaders within our football team and seeing guys like Demonte Cox or our running backs Darrell Henderson or Tony Pollard. Even though they're not seniors they had to really establish themselves as go-to guys and somebody that can be counted on when things maybe aren't going well for us. That's what I enjoy more than anything else. Seeing a team that has learned from some of the disappointments, some of the setbacks, and they've been able to apply the correction and put it into action on game day, to be able to get back to this point.

On football as a fairy tale...
I tell people all the time. Football as it is the greatest example of what life is going to be like. Everybody pictures a fairy tale of what it takes to get to be successful. It doesn't work out that way all the time and you have to be able to respond, and you control what you control, how you respond to every situation you control for prepare, and you control the belief that you have with the culture that we've been able to establish. Seeing all that play, I think that helps us for tomorrow’s contest, because you'll see all this emotions again through the 60 minutes that we’re going to have.

On facing Darriel Mack as UCF’s quarterback…
He’s a talented young man. He’s got great size over 230 pounds. You've got great speed. Watch East Carolina game, which he started on the road. It was definitely a dynamic player with the ball in his hands. He's got strong arm can push the ball down the field. I guess when you look at the grand scheme, he is a redshirt freshman. He doesn't have the experience and the number of snaps of a guy who is usually playing in this game. He's been very productive. You look at their team the two contests he’s had extensive snaps have both been on the road against quality opponents. He's done a great job and the team has rallied around him. They were both dominant victories 37-10 at East Carolina and 38-10 at South Florida. This team has a great belief in him. You have to adjust things. He can operate their system. Is he going to be McKenzie Milton, taking the snap and do all the different things. I don't know. We don't have a big enough sample size to tell. I can tell you he's very talented. He could do a lot of great things for them and he's surrounded by a lot of supporting cast.

On getting another chance to play UCF…
We’re excited to play UCF. When you’re two of the top programs in the league and you get a chance to play against each other and multiple times. There's a healthy respect and these are our games have been incredible. And you talk about the championship game last year and the one-point game this year. We know this is going to be a game that's going to come down to one play. To say it’s a rivalry, I don't know about that. I mean you know I think it's a game of two great football teams have done what's necessary to get to this point. I know for the American Conference this is an exciting game. I would say it's definitely a tribute to what's going on in our league as we've been able to push and gain national relevance because of the way that these teams play.

On the recognition The American would receive with a UCF win…
I can tell you that I know is that we’re excited about the opportunity. I'll say one thing about the American Athletic Conference is that every opportunity we step on the field, no matter what team shows up, there's going to be a high standard, a high level of competition and performance. We've got great coaches. We've got great players. You're going to turn on ABC tomorrow, no matter where you are in the country, you're going to see a great brand of football. This is a championship game. Either team can win. This is part of the two most competitive teams that our league has to show, at the present moment, and we're definitely excited for the opportunity. Whatever feelings go beyond that, I don't know.

On Brady White going into the game…
He’s excited about the opportunity. Throughout the year, Brady has prepared better than any player I’ve ever been around. He understands the role that he has. He's had a lead a lead an offense that does have a lot of weapons, and we are going to be multiple in what. We’ve got some dynamic players on the perimeter, and he's got a great job of controlling the game. We need to be efficient the passing game. Hopefully we’re be able to hit some of those explosive plays on the perimeter. One of the things that we need to improve on is we've got to own the football. The last couple of weeks, we turned the ball over for a variety of reasons, but we know that's be a big factor in this game. UCF is plus 16 on the turnover margin and we’re plus-two. It’s pretty indicative of why they haven’t lost any games, and we've had couple of setbacks. For us it's about going out there playing clean football. I know Brady is excited. Our team is full of confidence in what he's doing leading our football team and we're looking forward to it.

On giving a team ball to McKenzie Milton…
It’s kind of a commemorative ball for this game. It's just for McKenzie to tell him that he's in our thoughts and prayers, and we wish you all the best and a speedy recovery. As a one of the greatest competitors in college football, and I've been around this game for a good while, I've competed against a lot of great, great athletes. He's so impactful and not just on the field. You watch the watch the way that people respond to him. This is because of my experience of being around. I've got a lot of respect for that young man. It was heartbreaking to see him go down. I hate seeing adversity show up for really good people. I know he's going to respond and as a football team, we wanted to have a gesture just to say that we were there for support. We wish him a speedy recovery for him, because I know he's going to continue to impact this game and have a great recovery here in front of him. We just wanted our thoughts and prayers are with him.

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