Minus Milton, UCF rallies past Memphis in AAC title game

The Knights storm back from a 17-point halftime deficit to extend their win streak to 25 games
UCF quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. scrambles during the AAC Championship game of UCF versus Memphis at Spectrum Stadium Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018 in Orlando. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)
UCF quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. scrambles during the AAC Championship game of UCF versus Memphis at Spectrum Stadium Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018 in Orlando. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)
Published Dec. 2, 2018|Updated Dec. 2, 2018

ORLANDO — The tributes to McKenzie Milton were coordinated, conspicuous and colorful Saturday.

To honor its injured, Hawaiian-born quarterback, UCF distributed multi-colored leis at the Spectrum Stadium entrances before the American Athletic Conference title game. Meantime, teammates wore helmet stickers bearing his number (10). A poster-sized note of encouragement (courtesy of Tampa General Hospital) even ran in Saturday's Orlando Sentinel.

But the homages hardly ended there. By the end of another riveting day in the "Bounce House," the Knights had recognized their fallen leader with not only headwear and neckwear, but hardware.

Down by 17 at halftime, the Knights (12-0) scored touchdowns on their first five possessions of the second half to rally for a 56-41 triumph against resurgent Memphis (8-5) before an announced crowd of 45,176.

"Our locker room was extremely calm at halftime," said Knights first-year coach Josh Heupel, whose team trailed Memphis by 16 in the first half of its 31-30 regular season triumph in mid-October.

"There was a great belief that this was a situation that we've already been in…and I don't think anybody blinked an eye."

The victory extended UCF's win streak to 25 games and assured them a spot in a New Year's Six bowl as the highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion. But for the second year in a row, the Knights are almost certain to remain on the outside looking in when the College Football Playoff pairings are announced Sunday.

"If (a playoff berth) does not occur, then I think that's yet another pretty glaring example that a four-team playoff is not adequate for the postseason of college football," Knights athletic director Danny White said.

Likely further harming UCF's perception (aside from its feeble strength of schedule) among CFP committee members entering Saturday's game was the fact the quarterback who had led it to 24 consecutive wins was sidelined.

Yet on a banner day for backups (see Alabama's Jalen Hurts), Knights redshirt freshman Darriel "DJ" Mack Jr., was named the game's outstanding player after accounting for six touchdowns.

"(Milton) has made terrific plays all year and helped us win a lot of games," Mack said. "So going out there and finishing and winning it for him, it was very big. … It may not have been said as much, but everybody knew in the back of their head that we were gonna go out there and win for (Milton)."

As for Milton, he was part of a national ABC audience watching the game (reportedly from home), eight days after suffering extensive nerve damage and a dislocated right knee in the first half of UCF's 38-10 victory at USF.

What he observed at the outset likely induced a little more agony.

For the first 30 minutes, the Knights seemed destined for their first defeat in 714 days as they struggled to hold on to the ball, or hold Memphis tailback Darrell Henderson in check.

On the game's fourth play, the 5-foot-9, 200-pound junior ran for a 62-yard touchdown. He added an 82-yarder early in the second quarter, and gave the Tigers a 38-21 lead when he took a shotgun snap out of a wildcat formation and made a 4-yard scoring toss to Sean Dykes with 21 seconds to play in the first half.

At halftime, Henderson had 207 yards and four total touchdowns (three rushing) on 10 carries, and Memphis had 336 rushing yards — most in a Division I-A half this year. Knights defensive coordinator Randy Shannon's measured halftime message: Keep trusting the process.

"A lot of guys were jumping out of gaps and doing things they weren't supposed to do," defensive end Titus Davis said.

Meantime, Mack struggled in his second career start. He fumbled on a designed keeper on his fourth play of the game, and coughed up the ball again two possessions later upon being sacked.

The Tigers converted that turnover into a field goal, giving them a 24-7 lead and saddling UCF with the largest deficit it had faced during its win streak.

"When it didn't go well early…to me, I was able to look in (Mack's) eyes and see there was no cause for concern, no hesitation," Heupel said. "He still had a confident look in his eye and was ready to go out and compete."

While Mack and Co. stormed back, the Knights defense totally shut down Henderson, who managed only 3 second-half yards.

The comeback's pivotal moment came on the fourth period's opening play, when Greg McCrae found a seam on fourth-and-1 near midfield and dashed 50 yards to the Tigers 2. The following play, Mack ran for 2 yards to give UCF a 42-41 lead.

Mack finished with 407 total yards, including a dazzling performance in the air (19-for-27, 348 yards, two touchdowns) in which he consistently found receivers downfield. Four of his pass plays covered at least 44 yards.

McCrae, who ran for 181 yards at USF eight days before, finished with 206 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries.

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.