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Knights rout Bearcats in ‘War on I-4’ precursor

UCF clinches the American Athletic Conference's East Division title with Saturday's triumph
UCF defensive back Brandon Moore (20) is congratulated by linebacker Nate Evans, left, and linebacker Eric Mitchell after returning a blocked punt for 60 yards during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Cincinnati Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Published Nov. 18, 2018
Updated Nov. 18, 2018

ORLANDO — In the wake of Saturday night's nationally showcased 38-13 romp of Cincinnati, the War on I-4 has taken on a slightly different dynamic for UCF.

Suddenly, the rivalry game seems more like a trap game.

"Just keep the same mantra that we've been doing since Coach (Josh) Heupel stepped on campus," Knights tailback Adrian Killins said. "Just going 1-0 each and every week and taking it day by day, and not taking any day for granted."

Not exactly rivalry rhetoric.

Sandwiched between Saturday's drubbing at Spectrum Stadium and the Dec. 1 American Athletic Conference title game (also on the Knights' home turf) is a little business Friday at 4:15 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium.

And while pride — not to mention a 23-game win streak — will be on the line for 11th-ranked UCF (10-0, 7-0) when it meets the Bulls, not much else will. Perhaps that will benefit USF (7-4, 3-4), which needs every advantage it can muster against the polarizing steamroller coming from the east.

And is it ever rolling.

"You've got to measure yourself against the best, and they were the best tonight," Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. "And they were the best that we've seen."

On senior night, before an ABC audience and the second-largest crowd in Spectrum Stadium history (47,795), the Knights brought the juice in all three phases. In six days, on the road against a reeling rival, they must squeeze out a little more.

To be sure, Friday's game certainly won't come with the buildup of the Cincy contest, where ESPN's College GameDay provided the prelude, setting up shop in the belly of UCF's campus with an estimated 20,000 fans serving as the backdrop.

"You dream that as a little kid," Knights senior defensive tackle Joey Connors said. "You turn the TV on and seeing (GameDay) is in Orlando, on UCF's campus, on Memory Mall — that was unreal.

Similarly, the Knights-Bulls tussle won't have the championship implications of the AAC title match (against either Houston or Memphis).

Human nature says a letdown in between is inevitable. The Bulls can only hope that's the case. Otherwise, they could be in for a bleak Friday against the Knights offense, which arrived fashionably late Saturday before churning out 402 yards.

With future NFL employee McKenzie Milton (13-for-25, 268 yards, three touchdowns) controlling the throttle, the Knights stretched the field and dictated the pace. Facing a defense ranked in the top 15 nationally in five major categories, their receivers raced behind defenders and routinely found pockets of space in seams.

All after spotting the Bearcats a touchdown.

"I think it took a series or two to get my feet settled," said Milton, who graded his night a B or C-plus. "There was a lot of energy in the stadium tonight. Very thankful to the Knight Nation, sold-out crowd, it was electric. I thought I missed some things."

On Milton's first play of the night, he was blindsided by Cincy linebacker Malik Clements and fumbled in his end zone, giving the Bearcats a 6-0 lead. On UCF's second possession, Milton was sacked on third down, resulting in a three-and-out.

But before you could say Colley Matrix, the Knights found their lethal offensive rhythm, scoring on three of their next four possessions with one-dimensional aplomb. At halftime, UCF had 8 rushing yards and had possessed the ball for all of 8:31, but led 21-6.

Meantime, the Knights' defense, exploited at times this year, kept Cincinnati's offense out of the end zone for nearly 3 1/2 quarters. Senior Pat Jasinski provided the definitive highlight clip, forcing a fumble with a crushing (and almost targeting) shot to quarterback Desmond Ridder's solar plexus.

Additionally, freshman Randy Charlton stuffed Bearcats running back Tavion Thomas on fourth-and-1 at midfield in the third quarter, while senior Titus Davis registered three sacks.

"I thought defensively, a dominating performance," Heupel said. "They kept us in the ball game early while offensively we got our footing."

Afterward, the Knights were presented the East Division trophy by AAC commissioner Mike Aresco in an abbreviated locker-room celebration, before dispersing.

With more business at hand, one can't afford to get trapped in euphoria. But the Bulls sure wish they would.

"They want our heads and we want theirs too," Killins said. "So may the best team win."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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