On the cusp of the 2019 season, let’s remember UCF’s 2018 season that can only be described with one word: resiliency.
An injury to Aaron Robinson on the opening kickoff to begin 2018 foreshadowed how razor-thin a line athletes walk in any given season. Robinson was carted off on a stretcher after colliding head-first with another UCF player in the season opener at UConn.
The Knights regained focus after Robinson’s injury and went on to route the Huskies’ historically bad defense. Robinson would return later in the year. But looking back, I remember thinking at the time how fortunate the Knights had been in 2017 to not succumb to injuries. Little did I know what the future had in store…
After dismantling South Carolina State in a glorified scrimmage, the Knights looked to take on UNC as their first challenge of the year. Weather experts expected Hurricane Florence to make landfall as a category 4 storm in North Carolina, forcing school officials to cancel classes and eventually the football game in the name of safety.
The lack of a similar bye week forced officials to simply cancel the game. In an ironic twist, the Knights were criticized for not facing UNC, a P5 team, even though playing at UNC would probably have hurt their overall strength of schedule as UNC finished the season 2-9, with wins over Western Carolina and Pitt(!) of all teams. I guess that extra hurricane week off helped the Tar Heels.
In any case, this marked the third year in a row that UCF has been affected by mother nature. Hopefully, hurricane season will be less active in 2019 (go away Dorian!).
ACC Coastal Champion Beatdown
After putting away pesky FAU (a preseason top-25 team over UCF on some ballots?), the Knights turned their attention to another P5 foe.
The Pitt Panthers somehow rebounded from losing at UNC to win the ACC Coastal. The Panthers became the college football key to unlocking exactly how good the 2018 Knights’ team performed. Too bad no one noticed.
UCF whipped the visually outmatched Panthers 45-14 (7 of that 14 came from a garbage 4th quarter TD).
Clemson beat the Panthers 52-10.
Penn State beat the Panthers 51-6.
CFP invitee Notre Dame magically escaped Pitt to win 19-14.
Hindsight is 20/20 of course, knowing the Knights without Milton at the end of the year would not have performed as well in the CFP. But the 2018 Knights proved that they could win the 2018 Coastal and certainly (would have) earned the right to get boat raced by Clemson in the CFP.
Milton Saves the Day
Following a somewhat forgettable razing of SMU, UCF returned to Memphis for the first time since 2013 in a rain filled donnybrook (to borrow an O’Leary term).
For all you newbies, the 2013 trip to Memphis saw the Knights escape in miraculous fashion thanks to a Willy Stanback crushing special teams hit that caused a fumble leading to a late TD and a Terrance Plummer interception to seal the game. UCF had no business winning the 2013 contest.
In the same way, the 2018 Knights had no business winning at Memphis. The UCF defense struggled to stop the very talented Tiger running backs. The Knights trailed at half only 17-30 thanks to a last-second field goal going into the locker room.
Memphis, though, would not score again.
UCF faced ultimate desperation in their quest to remain unbeaten. On 4th-and-1 from their own 29 yard line with 2:51 left in the 3rd quarter down 2 TDs, UCF’s Taj McGowan bowled his way through the line and scored a season defining 71-yard TD.
Early in the 4th quarter, McKenzie Milton leaped and just barely scored on a keeper, sacrificing his body in a cringe-worthy play upon reflection.
In the end, Memphis drove to within field goal range at the end of the game. Time expired as a Tigers receiver caught a pass in bounds when Memphis had no timeouts.
The Knights escaped Memphis yet again.
In what turned out to be a move that paid off later, Josh Heupel started Darriel Mack Jr. against ECU. Quadry Jones threw his first TD of his career in the 2nd quarter. The Knights learned how to win without Milton for the first time since 2016, getting significant contributions from the run game and a Nate Evans 94-yard fumble recovery for a TD.
The Knights then welcomed Temple to town for a Thursday night space odyssey, wearing the best uniforms in college football in 2018:
In front of a national audience, UCF trailed Temple at halftime and gave up 670 yards to the Owls on the night. On top of out gaining the Knights, Temple dominated time of possession. UCF escaped, but the national perception of the Knights defense seemed to be cemented that night.
GameDay Comes to O-Town
UCF regathered and defeated an over-matched Navy team before making history.
Riding a 23-game winning streak, UCF welcomed ESPN’s College GameDay to campus. The moment was big but not too big for these Knights. UCF destroyed then number 24 Cincinnati in a prime-time game nationally broadcast on ABC.
The crowd was electric. The Bearcats began the game with two pre-snap penalties directly caused by the mass of euphoric fans.
The offense rebounded from a sloppy beginning to build a four TD lead by the beginning of the 4th quarter. The defense played lights out, only giving up the first offensive points of the game to Cincy in the 4th quarter.
Although the Knights would go on to beat South Florida then win another AAC championship, the win over Cincinnati along with hosting GameDay marked the high point of the season and perhaps the entire program.
Following the 2018 season’s emotional high, a devastating knee injury to the heart and soul of Knight Nation cast a pall on the remainder of the season. On a routine play, Milton suffered an injury in which he could have lost much of his leg had things not gone absolutely perfect.
South Florida players were visibly disturbed. Fans were understandably silent.
The team regrouped. UCF went on to win by four TDs utilizing a dynamic rushing attack and a smothering defense. The Knights took home another War on I-4 trophy and bragging rights for another year.
Back-2-Back AAC Champions
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. UCF won a game against Memphis they probably shouldn’t have. The Knights found themselves down 17 points at the half, having just about everything go wrong.
The defense then held the Tigers to three points in the second half.
The offense also scored five second-half TDs to seal the deal.
The Knights beat Memphis for the 4th time in two years to win back-to-back AAC championships.
Dreams Die in the Desert
After a perfect 12-0 season, the Knights were once again passed over for the CFP. An undefeated Notre Dame team that struggled mightily against Pitt, a team UCF destroyed, was selected by the CFP committee. The injury to McKenzie Milton and the false perception that the Knights lacked a good defense no doubt swayed the room. It’s just as well, the committee would have matched the Knights up against Clemson, who was unstoppable last season.
Instead, UCF played LSU in the Fiesta Bowl, marking their 3rd NY6 bowl in six years. The Knights showed promise early on taking a 14-3 lead. LSU, however, took over the game and won by one score in the end.
UCF suffered its first loss in two years.
In a way, the loss to LSU provides the Knights with a fresh start. 2019’s team is now Josh Heupel’s team, and the Knights will have to find an identity beyond Milton and Scott Frost.
The resilient 2018 Knights should be remembered as one of the best teams in the history of UCF sports. Becoming a consistent winner, UCF has much on which to build for the 2019 season.