Each week, a few staff contributors will answer five questions regarding the upcoming events in UCF Knights sports. It’s a way to get the staff to come together as well as the rest of Knights Nation, to see if they agree or disagree with the crew at BGB.
Today, Jeremy Brener, Jeff Sharon, and Brian Murphy take their seats at the roundtable to answer questions about Saturday’s AAC Championship Game against the Memphis Tigers.
1. What is the biggest key for UCF on Saturday?
Jeff Sharon: For the first time, it’s all on defense: Stop Memphis’ rushing attack. They’ve somehow gotten better since the game up there earlier this year. They ran for 401 yards against Houston, most of it after Ed Oliver was out. But they imposed their will on Houston, and if UCF is not careful, they’ll do the same.
Brian Murphy: Controlling the emotions early will be key. The stadium will be raucous. The stage is grand and important. Adding in the backdrop of #WinFor10, this team is going to be juiced up beyond belief. They will also need rein that in early.
Specifically, Darriel Mack can’t play “hero ball” in this game. Just because he is stepping in for McKenzie doesn’t mean he must be McKenzie. I think it will be crucial for UCF to give him some easy throws early on, get him in the flow of the game, get his confidence up, and then let him trust the myriad playmakers around him.
Jeremy Brener: Get in the game early and don’t force Mack and the offense to play behind. Mack is probably feeling a lot of nerves and pressure as it is with the energy and atmosphere behind McKenzie’s injury, and playing from behind will only exacerbate those emotions and force him to play even more “hero ball.”
2. How much of an impact will playing at home have for the Knights?
Jeff Sharon: It’s a huge advantage in this game. It will be warm, and the fans will be out of their minds, especially if we hear from McKenzie Milton in some way before the game. A charged-up, emotional crowd could be the difference, as we’ve seen on occasion this season.
Brian Murphy: As Josh Heupel said on Monday, “I’m glad we’re not traveling to Memphis this week.”
That crowd is going to be at full-throat at the start and could cause some problems for the Tigers much like it did for Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago. It’ll be up to the Knights to keep them in the game, but if UCF maintains a lead or at least keeps it close throughout, that crowd is going to make a difference on a handful of plays.
Jeremy Brener: Huge. In fact, it might just be the difference that puts UCF over the edge. Emotions are higher than it has ever been and it might be as loud in the Bounce House than it has ever been. It certainly can’t hurt the Knights and it might oddly calm the team down.
3. What can UCF learn from their near-loss to Memphis earlier in the year and fix for Saturday?
Jeff Sharon: I think the clearest thing they can learn is how one-dimensional football can still get you. You have to be fully prepared against a team like Memphis that is well-coached and executes what they do very well. You know the run is coming, and they don’t care. So they’re going to have to figure out different ways of attacking their stretch and counter trey game to get them into 3rd and long, and then put the game on their less-than-stellar QB, Brady White.
Brian Murphy: I think the Knights can take away a bit of confidence in how they slowed down Memphis in the second half of that first meeting. Especially with how they limited running back Darrell Henderson to just 27 yards in the second half. Other than that, both sides are different teams now, playing with different personnel and formations. The two sides are familiar with each other, but this game will be a new entity.
Jeremy Brener: Tackle. Tackle. Tackle. Tackle. Tackle. Make the tackle. That’s what nearly sunk UCF in its last meeting but if the second-half defense shows up for a full sixty minutes tomorrow, the Knights will win. However, if that first-half defense is the one that shows up, UCF’s chances of winning will be incredibly slim.
4. Who is the X-Factor for each team?
Jeff Sharon: The QBs. For Memphis, it’s White. If UCF shuts down the run, he’ll have to make plays to win, which he hasn’t really done much of this year. For UCF, what will Darriel Mack do in this moment? What is he comfortable executing? Will his teammates make plays for him (dropped passes have been an issue)? If Mack plays solidly, UCF has a very good chance.
Brian Murphy: For Memphis, it’s obviously quarterback Brady White. Everyone knows that Memphis wants to run the ball as much as it can with Henderson, so if White can just complement that with decent game-managing, the Tigers will be in good shape.
I will give you two for UCF: First, linebacker Nate Evans, who has recorded double-digit tackles in three of his last five games. His ability to go sideline-to-sideline and stop rushers before they reach the third level will be critical against such a dynamic player like Henderson.
Secondly, cornerback Nevelle Clarke. He, to put it gently, did not have a good game when these teams first met in October. Memphis targeted him often and found success with WR Damonte Coxie and others. A good game by Clarke will go a long way in keeping Memphis strictly one-dimensional.
Jeremy Brener: I’ll go with the running backs. If Darrell Henderson punishes UCF like he did in the last meeting, it will be difficult for the Knights to win. If Greg McCrae is able to work his magic like he did against USF last week, it will be difficult for the Tigers to win.
5. What are your predictions for score and attendance?
Jeff Sharon: Attendance: Sellout. 46,000
Score: Here’s where people are going to get pissed at me. I think the magic is going to run out. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m feeling 31-28 Memphis.
Brian Murphy: Apparently, this game isn’t sold out yet (HOW?), so I’ll say the attendance is 45,808.
The score? Hoo, boy.
I honestly have been going back and forth on this. Not the score, but the winner. I don’t feel confident that one side will win convincingly. And for as much emotion as UCF will carry, the Tigers will be driven by revenge. They have lost 12 in a row to this program, had their hearts ripped out in this same game last year, and let a win at home over UCF slip away just last month. And yet, they get another shot at them. I think that’s going to serve as tremendous motivation, and Memphis’ talent mixed with determination can be enough here.
Crap, I don’t know. I said before the season date UCF had a 0.0% chance of going undefeated again. I still might be right, but lord, how I don’t want to be.
I’ll go with my heart instead of my head here: 34-27, Knights.
In any case, one thing is for certain: There will be tears at the UCF postgame press conference for the second year in a row. Remember that it was announced during last year’s TV broadcast of this game that Scott Frost had accepted the head coaching position at Nebraska. He could hardly get through the presser afterward without completely breaking down.
Win or lose, we’re going to see that again Saturday night. Grab a tissue.
Jeremy Brener: 45,990. They’ll be 10 short. (See what I did there?) But for the score, I’m going to go with the reverse jinx. I’ll either be right or happy, but I hope I’m wrong AND happy.
Memphis 42, Knights 21