ORLANDO — Less than four days after USF unveiled plans for a $40 million football-exclusive facility, UCF officials and donors were brandishing gold-painted shovels Saturday morning in a ceremonial groundbreaking for a football operations headquarters.
Yet for all the fanciful renderings and futuristic visions spawned by the I-4 rivals lately, only one arms race matters for the moment.
McKenzie Milton vs. Quinton Flowers, with every last marble in the American Athletic Conference’s East Division likely at stake.
While Flowers nudges closer to USF immortality, Milton climbs closer to the rarefied UCF air breathed only by his NFL predecessors. Saturday against Connecticut, the 5-foot-11 Knights sophomore notched his fifth 300-yard passing effort of the season in a 49-24 romp before an announced Spectrum Stadium crowd of 29,384.
The only other Knights with a quintet of 300-yard games in one season? Blake Bortles (2013) and Daunte Culpepper (1997).
"McKenzie’s been our catalyst," Knights coach Scott Frost said.
Now, the No. 22 Bulls (8-1, 5-1) and No. 14 Knights (9-0, 6-0) have only one hour of unfinished work each before their Black Friday showdown in Orlando. USF hosts Tulsa on senior night Thursday, while UCF travels to play rapidly improving Temple next weekend.
Tend to business in those games, and the Flowers-Milton clash moves to the national forefront. While not a matchup in the literal sense (neither must try to tackle the other), the proficiency with which each directs his balanced, brisk-tempo offense could determine the outcome.
Both can be deemed a dual-threat extraordinaire, albeit with contrasting skill sets. Flowers, an improved thrower but more effective runner (3,345 career rushing yards), possesses a burst and uncanny improvisational flair that has him on the cusp of overtaking Marlon Mack (3,609) for USF’s career rushing yardage lead.
Milton counters with a quick, faux-sidearm release that has proven consistently accurate. He entered Saturday’s game as the AAC’s most efficient passer (189.1) and finished 24-of-36 for 311 yards and two touchdowns. It was his fifth non-interception game of 2017.
"I give a lot of credit to Coach (Mario) Verduzco, putting in work in the offseason," Milton said. "He has a lot of good drills to work on mechanics and build arm strength. In my opinion he’s the best quarterback coach in the country."
Milton’s highlights Saturday: a 41-yard touchdown toss over the middle to Tre’Quan Smith — on second and 20 — in the second quarter, and a 39-yard toss to Smith down the right sideline in the fourth (UConn was whistled for interference on the play).
On the Knights’ opening drive of the game, he scrambled for 7 yards on third and 7, then found Gabriel Davis for a 30-yard completion the next play. The play after that, 165-pound freshman sparkplug Otis Anderson scored on a 3-yard run.
Milton’s take on it all: "I felt today we came out a little flat."
Okay, well, the Knights did fail to score in the third quarter (only the second quarter in which they’ve been held scoreless all year), but they responded with a trio of fourth-quarter touchdowns including Milton’s 4-yard run.
He finished with 52 yards on 10 carries.
"We have a lot of guys around him that can make football plays, but McKenzie’s the one making decisions and distributing," Frost said. "I thought he played a clean game today."
One more clean game, and it’s on to Flowers and Co. in what could be the most significant game in USF history.
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.