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For UCF, There’s No Shortage of Great Stories From Saturday’s AAC Title Triumph

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Milton to Mack, McCrae’s studly play, Josh Heupel’s steadfast leadership and more, the Knights had it all in 2018

AAC Championship - Memphis v Central Florida
The Knights drew upon the emotions of playing for their fallen QB — a whole lot of pure talent — to stage an unforgettable comeback win over Memphis in the AAC Championship game.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Not to make this sound like an ESPN “30 for 30” film, but ...

What if I told you a man who inherited an undefeated team would surpass all expectations by matching perfection with perfection?

If you attend Josh Heupel’s press conferences, it will seem after a while as if he is reading off the same script every week.

“One play at a time for 60 minutes.”

“Physical on both sides of the football.”

“Play well in all three phases of the game.”

Those phrases have been fired off ad nauseam through the course of the season. But there is one platitude that leads the pack and has turned into a motto that the Knights have genuinely embraced over the past 11 months.

“1-0.”

Every practice, every game, every day, every week, it’s about going 1-0. I’ve mocked its overuse throughout the year — seriously, it’s been omnipresent — but as of now, what have Heupel and his team done exactly? You guessed it.

Perfection wasn’t required of Heupel right away. 10-2 would have been fine. But he didn’t think about 10-2. He didn’t think about 12-0 either. All he wanted was 1-0, and that’s what he got.

What if I told you a team would turn halftime into its secret weapon?

Heupel and this team reached 12-0 for one of the same reasons Scott Frost and his team reached 12-0 at this point in the 2017 season: second-half adjustments.

Frost was a magician when it came to sustaining what was working and fixing what was broken during the break. But by comparison, Frost was doing simple card tricks; Heupel — and especially defensive coordinator Randy Shannon — performed metamorphoses.

Saturday’s game was perhaps the best example of this but far from the only one. Memphis’ rushing attack was an unstoppable force in the first half. gaining an FBS season-high 336 yards on 26 carries. Then halftime arrived, and UCF’s defense reappeared looking like Popeye after a spinach lunch.

In the second half, Memphis gained 65 yards on 19 carries. The Knights outscored them 35-3. UCF hasn’t allowed more than seven points in a third quarter all year and has outscored its opponents by a ridiculous margin within that specific quarter: 122-33.

Players such as senior defensive end Titus Davis credited the turnaround to just “trusting the process” and patching up some missed assignments. That’s been the company line when players have been asked about previous second-half transformations.

But there must be more to UCF’s third-quarter dominance than that, right? It can’t possibly be so simple and mundane. Like most good magic, however, it might just have to be left as unexplained.

What if I told you an undefeated team’s defensive game-changer was extremely overlooked?

It took an interception with less than a minute to play, but the Knights were able to extend their turnover streak to 31 consecutive games, the longest in the nation. It came on safety Richie Grant’s sixth interception of the year.

Grant was a two-star prospect coming out of high school in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

Only two FBS schools offered him a scholarship: UCF and Georgia State.

Now, in his second year of the field, Grant is the Knights’ leader in tackles with 102.

And only two players in the FBS have more than six interceptions this season.

What if I told you the best running back in this game wasn’t the player with the gaudy season stats or NFL future; it was the player who wasn’t on scholarship six months ago.

The game plan for Memphis was well known and well executed early on: Give Darrell Henderson the rock and let him do the rest. The Tigers’ offensive line mauled the Knights at the point of attack, and Henderson romped his way to 207 first-half rushing yards. He entered the game with the second-most rushing yards in the nation, 1,699, so topping 2,000 suddenly seemed well within reach.

Instead, Henderson’s second-half total fell off juuuuuuust a bit from that 207 pace.

He went from 207 to 3, finishing with 210 rushing yards.

With Henderson neutralized, another running back shined under the bright lights of Spectrum Stadium.

Greg McCrae was a walk-on at UCF after spending one semester at Navy in 2016. By 2017, he was a part of the Knights but as a mop-up back, someone you put into the game when everything has already been decided. He wasn’t placed on scholarship until July 31 of this year. And he thought he was getting arrested on that fateful day.

McCrae wasn’t even a huge factor in this offense for most of this season. But look at what he has accomplished in the past six games:

85 carries, 816 yards, eight touchdowns.

That includes 206 rushing yards — 236 total — on a career-high 24 carries against Memphis. McCrae had never topped more than 10 carries in any game as a Knight until the Temple matchup just about a month ago. Since, he has received at least 16 carries in all but one game, topped 1,000 rushing yards for the year and has established himself as the best pure running back on the roster.

Not bad for a walk-on.

What if I told you that an undefeated team would lose its heart and not skip a beat?

It’s the story.

McKenzie Milton wasn’t just one of the best football players in the nation and a Heisman hopeful. He was the center of UCF’s football universe. Everything revolved around him.

And then, after he suffered a devastating right knee injury versus South Florida on Nov. 23, his teammates rallied around him.

It’s #PlayFor10.

It’s #WinFor10.

It’s #Ohana. Or rather, #10hana.

In steps redshirt freshman quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. for just his second career start, to win a conference championship.

A dual-threat QB like Milton but in many ways different, Mack is four inches taller and about 40 pounds heavier. His personality on the field is super-sized exuberance, contrasted with Milton’s suave disposition. Whereas Milton can apply a feathery touch to his passes, Mack’s throws come at you full throttle. If a defender wants to try to pick off one of his darts, they risk breaking a finger.

It was rough early, sure, as Mack lost a couple of fumbles and would have lost a third along with six points if not for Michael Colubiale’s quick reaction time in the end zone.

But ultimately, Mack was Milton, for Milton.

He connected on four 40-plus-yard passes and completed 70 percent of his throws overall. He compiled 407 total yards and a school-record-tying six touchdowns. Again, in his second career start. For a conference championship.

There are more stories contained within — the 30-point streak; this team’s overall transition to a new staff and, on defense, a new scheme; the ability to stay on task amid a torrent of outside disrespect, schedule changes due to a hurricane and the full awareness that every team you face will line up with extreme determination, driven by the desire to brag to the vast college football world that they were the group that took down UCF.

Those stories, collectively or individually, would make for a pretty nice “30 for 30.” That is, once this storybook season is over.

There is more to be written.