PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — For Sunday’s Fiesta Bowl Media Day, every player from UCF and LSU — yes, every player — was made available to the crowd of scribes. My goal: Go around the room and ask as many Knights as possible two simple questions:
1. What was the best play of the season by any player?
2. What was the best play of the season by a player at your position?
Here are their responses, starting with their choices for best play of the year. One in particular was mentioned far more than any other:
Of the 22 players asked Sunday, 13 of them tabbed McGowan’s 71-yard, momentum-altering, fourth-down run out of the “Bone” formation at Memphis as the play of the year. Here is one sample from Adrian Killins on why it is indeed that.
“I didn’t think he was going to go all the way; I just thought we were just going to convert and get the first down, but he shocked me and I’m pretty he shocked everybody else when he just took it to the house.”
But as you know if you’ve been watching all season long, this team isn’t short on memorable plays.
Center Jordan Johnson decided to choose any of Richie Grant’s six interceptions: “Richie Grant is a heck of a football player, man. Any of his interceptions could go down as one of our best plays.”
Defensive tackle Joey Connors also mentioned McGowan’s big run, but he first brought up Greg McCrae’s overall performance versus South Florida: “I gotta give it to Greg. Whatever he’s been eating or doing, Greg McCrae against USF, he just broke out three touchdowns. McKenzie goes out, everybody’s down and then Greg just takes over.”
Wide receiver Gabriel Davis: “I loved watching Greg break loose. Greg, when he broke loose against East Carolina, I loved that. I don’t know why I like it so much; we were winning the game and it was nothing too serious, but I was so excited for him.”
Quarterback Darriel Mack Jr.: “I gotta say the hit that Pat (Jasinski) made against Cincinnati. That was a big play. ... I wouldn’t want to hit Pat.”
That fumble-forcing hit from Jasinski was also selected by cornerbacks Aaron Robinson and, initially, Brandon Moore before Moore changed his pick to linebacker Eric Mitchell’s interception versus FAU. Mitchell, returning the love to the man seated next to him during media day, said his play of the year was Moore’s long return of a blocked field goal against Cincinnati.
When the question was broached to Pat Jasinski, a couple other media members wanted him to also promote his crushing blow on the Bearcats’ QB, but he went a different route: “I want to say Titus’ play on the fake punt versus SMU. That was a pretty big one. He stuck that guy, and if he didn’t make that play, I think we might have been in a little trouble, so that was a big one.”
McGowan can admit that his highlight run was definitely one of the plays of the year, even if he is uncomfortable in doing so. But he gave the honor of best play to another from that game.
Taj McGowan's long fourth-downTD run at Memphis was a popular pick among #UCF players today for play of the year. Here's Taj's reaction when I asked him what are his plays of the year. pic.twitter.com/875aZz3PsB— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) December 30, 2018
McGowan’s answer dovetails well into the position-specific plays of the year.
Best play by a quarterback
Mack: “That play that KZ made against Memphis, the dive. That was a big play for us. Awesome.”
Best play by a running back
No surprise here ...
Greg McCrae: “Fourth and 1, Memphis, Taj McGowan breaks a long 71-yard run. That’s the best play right there because that changed the whole momentum of that Memphis game. In the rain, tough game, it was kind of chilly out there. We’re struggling, and he busts off that long run. Trysten Hill with the big block destroyed his guy.”
Best play by a receiver
Gabriel Davis: “We were down in the Memphis game and number 13 (aka Gabriel Davis) comes across the middle on a post route. He catches the football right at the knee in stride. ... He picks it up and takes his 4.5 speed 80 yards for a touchdown.”
Tre Nixon: I would probably say Gabe’s catch against South Florida when he took it over the dude’s head. That was probably one of the best plays I’ve seen.”
Michael Colubiale, was incorrectly listed at media day as a wideout, but he’s obviously going to look out for his own at tight end: “I think I have to give that to number 88, Jake Hescock, in the conference championship game when he caught the second pass of his life (in college) and he caught his first touchdown pass in a big game and helped change the momentum of the game.”
Best play by an offensive lineman
Since the O-line functions as a single unit more than five separate pieces, I get that this question doesn’t quite make sense. So, it was changed to the best performance by the offensive line.
Jordan Johnson said it came versus Temple. Tackle Wyatt Miller said the line played its best in the AAC title game. Tackle Jake Brown brought up the Navy game as the best overall showing.
Guard Tyler Hudanick couldn’t pick between the final two games, USF or Memphis. But he also said the best blocking play of the year up front came on that McGowan run: “[Memphis] knew what we were doing and it all took care of itself.”
Best play by a defensive lineman
A.J. Wooten: “In the Cincinnati game, [the Bearcats] were about to score I think before the half, and Titus (Davis), he came up with a strip sack. That was a big play.”
Joey Connors picked two plays: the Knights’ two blocked kicks this year. They came by Wooten (vs. South Carolina State) and Connors (vs. Cincy).
“That changes the momentum of the whole game,” Connors said. “If you can block a kick like that and then return it to their side of the field ... that’s a big change.”
Best play by a linebacker
Pat Jasinski: “I want to say probably Nate Evans’ play in the ECU game, getting that tipped ball and taking it back for a touchdown was huge. ... That’s a 14-point swing when you’re looking at it. Can’t get much bigger than that.”
Eric Mitchell chose Shawn Burgess-Becker’s pick-six against FAU, and Burgess-Becker said the best play by an LB were actually each of the position’s three interceptions in that game — one each for himself, Jasinski and Mitchell.
Best play by a defensive back
This was nearly unanimous among the four DBs polled: Richie Grant’s incredible sideline INT against the Bulls.
Rashard Causey said of the play: “That shows a lot of range, and he got a foot down, too. That shows that he’s very skillful with the ball in his hands. ... [The Bulls] were driving down and he shut the whole drive down.”
Both Causey and Kyle Gibson tried to get Grant to go along with them and say that play was the top by a DB. But Grant had another in mind, one he said has been eating at him all year.
Richie Grant: “I want to say myself, but I’m going to be honest with you. I’ve been jealous of this one play the whole season: Kyle Gibson got an interception down the middle (vs. South Carolina State). ... He just got so high, I’ve been jealous of that play the whole season. I want a picture like that where I’m, like, 12 feet off the ground.”
Best play on special teams
Punter Mac Loudermilk made two “sporty” selections: “Mine, personally, would have to be against ECU. We did a pooch punt, and Jacob Harris caught it with his toes on the goal line but somehow managed to keep the ball from crossing the goal line. That’s pretty sporty right there.
“Another special teams play would have to be Matt Wright recovering the fumble on the kickoff (vs. SMU). Him recovering a fumble on his own kickoff, that’s pretty sporty on his part.”