Looks like we have a clear answer already to one of our Six Biggest Questions from the preseason: Is McKenzie Milton still the man at QB? He left no doubt in Thursday night's regular-season opener. Milton was unquestionably the man versus FIU, leading UCF's offense to one of its most productive days in recent memory in a 61-17 shellacking of the Panthers.
The sophomore completed his first eight passes and accumulated 357 yards and three touchdowns before halftime. He tacked on a fourth TD to cap UCF's opening drive of the second half before taking the rest of the night off. By that point, UCF was cruising, 47-10. When asked after the game if he had ever experienced such a hot start, Milton said, "Maybe in high school."
It was one hell of a start overall for the Knights. But as head coach Scott Frost pointed out afterward, it is only a start. Tougher tests and greater challenges are coming, beginning with next Saturday's meeting with the Memphis Tigers. But for a couple of days, Frost and his team will enjoy looking back on what was a largely dominant performance. Let's do the same in this space. For more analysis, make sure to check out our live blog of this game.
It wasn't all about Milton. There were plenty of bright spots for Knights, including how the offensive line set their QB up brilliantly, giving him forever to find his receivers. Another important development was the play of junior defensive back Mike Hughes. A junior college transfer, Hughes has been a part of this team for only two weeks. He doesn't even have a profile picture on the Knights' online roster page yet. However, he was called into action in the first quarter and finished his debut with a couple of tackles, a forced fumble and a team-high three pass breakups. He also returned three punts for 50 yards.
"It's pretty crazy," Hughes said. "[The coaches] threw a lot at me. They knew I was able to pick up on a lot of things, so I think I did a good job of just going out there and do what I do."
The rushing offense can be better. Even though McKenzie Milton was the story, the Knights' offense is still based around running the ball. They averaged just 3.3 yards per carry over 45 attempts, and Frost said he was not satisfied with the performance of his ground game. Granted, he said it with a smile because he knows you can't be too condemning when you just won your season-opener by 44 points. However, this is the perfect situation for Frost as a coach. He can savor an authoritative victory and also have a few areas where he can rightfully stress improvement during the upcoming practice week. UCF will need more from its running backs versus Memphis.
FIU's pass defense. Milton got plenty of help from his offensive line and receivers, but the Panthers' secondary also made him look good with its multiple breakdowns in coverage. That played a role in UCF's three pass plays of 50 yards or more.
Defense shows up on offense. Jamiyus Pittman said he had been dreaming about it. The 311-pound defensive lineman has wanted Coach Frost to get him in the game on offense since before the start of last season. On Thursday night, his dream came true. Pittman was brought in as a lead blocker with the Knights on the goal line. As you can see at about the 1:25 mark in the highlight video above, Pittman easily moved his man aside as Taj McGowan basically followed the big senior into the end zone.
"It turned out just the way I see it in the dream," Pittman said.
That play is called "tank" because, as Pittman said, "When you go to war, you've got to have a tank."
Perhaps the worst news from Thursday for the Knights concerned linebacker Dedrion Bacote, who suffered a left leg injury on a late hit by FIU in the first half. Bacote's leg was placed in an air cast and although Frost tried to be coy when asked about it after the game, he did say, "Hopefully [the diagnosis] is not as bad as we're expecting."
The Turning Point
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this was a close contest at one point. The Panthers answered UCF's opening score with a 75-yard passing touchdown. Knights DB Chris Johnson got beat on the play and was replaced in the lineup by Hughes shortly thereafter.
However, The Knights regained control thanks to what was perhaps Milton's best throw of the night: A perfectly placed 50-yard dart to junior wideout Tre'Quan Smith.
Tre'Quan's TD put the Knights up, 14-7. They would go on to score 40 of the next 43 points, which included another Milton-to-Smith hookup in the end zone.
"Me and McKenzie got a very special connection," Smith said.
Stats of the Night
The defense forces four turnovers and holds FIU to 2-for-12 on third downs. If this game was competitive, the Knights' offense probably would have set school records for the most yards and points in a single game. Consider that they put up 587 and 61, respectively, while spending most of the second half running the clock and with Milton resting on the bench.
But an offense can't function like that if they don't have the ball. UCF's defense made sure that was never a problem. That defense allowed its opponents to convert third downs only 29 percent of the time last season, the sixth-lowest rate in the nation. It was even better on Thursday. The Knights also picked up three fumbles, and junior defensive back Tre Neal recorded his first career interception as a member of the Black and Gold.
"We always preach in the DB room that's the money down for us," Neal said about getting third-down stops. "That's where DBs make their money here, in the league, everywhere. ... Third down, we take pride in it as a defense. That's when we let the dogs loose up front, Shaquem (Griffin), the D-linemen, all those boys."
Next Saturday. Spectrum Stadium. 8 p.m. Be there.