Backup QB leads No. 8 UCF into AAC title game vs. Memphis

UCF Knights quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. (8) throws the ball during the second half at Raymond James StadiumPhoto: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

QB Darriel Mack Jr. won’t be the only player with a key role in Saturday’s American Athletic Conference Championship.

But he likely will be under the most scrutiny when UCF hosts Memphis at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando, Fla.

Champions of the East Division, the No. 8 Knights (11-0, 8-0 AAC) will be going for their 25th consecutive victory, which would put them among college football’s top 25 longest winning streaks.

Winners of the AAC West, unranked Memphis (8-4, 5-3) has won its last four games and is coming off a 52-31 victory over Houston that put the Tigers in the title game.

Mack is replacing dark horse Heisman candidate McKenzie Milton, who last week suffered a gruesome knee injury early in the second quarter. He had surgery the next day.

Mack was only 5-of-14 passing for 81 yards in a little over a half in the 38-10 win over South Florida, but he didn’t turn the ball over and contributed 51 yards to UCF’s season-high 390 rushing yards.

“I thought DJ held himself with great composure and did a great job as far as his decision-making process,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said this week. “He managed the pass game, run game and the clock at the end. He handled every situation he was in really, really well. That’s true of who and what he’s been throughout the course of the season.”

His teammates expressed confidence in the redshirt freshman.

“I think it’s another opportunity for us to showcase the talent that we have and the depth that we have,” offensive tackle Wyatt Miller said. “A lot of teams don’t have two quarterbacks like that who can go back and forth, and both can play ball for real.

“So I think it’s a good chance for DJ to show up and show out. So we’re excited about that.”

Mack played in only eight games, but one was a start against East Carolina when Milton was out injured. Mack was 12-of-20 passing for 69 yards and rushed for 120 yards in UCF’s 37-10 win, but Memphis presents a much more formidable challenge.

The Knights and Tigers met Oct. 13, with the Knights rallying from a 16-point, third-quarter deficit with 17 consecutive points for a 31-30 victory. It was the Knights’ 12th consecutive victory in the series after a loss in their first meeting in 1990.

But three of the last four meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less. The Knights went three overtimes to beat the Tigers 62-55 in last year’s AAC title game.

“We’ve competed well against them, but we have also made mistakes late in games that cost us,” Memphis coach Mike Norvell said. “They made plays late in games that helped them to victory.”

With Milton’s injury, the game looks to come down to possibly a more ground-oriented offensive show than would be expected if Milton (266 yards passing per game) were healthy.

For UCF, running back Greg McRae has topped 100 yards rushing in three of his last four games and missed by a yard of making it four of his last five. Running back Adrian Killins Jr. has breakaway capability.

For Memphis, Darrell Henderson has rushed for a FBS-best 1,699 yards with 19 touchdowns this season. He ran for 199 yards in the first meeting with UCF in Memphis.

Memphis looks to have an advantage at quarterback, where junior Brady White, a transfer from Arizona State, has caught fire. He has averaged more than 245 yards per game passing in the four-game winning streak.

“I think they are playing their best football and we are playing our best football,” Norvell said. “That’s what you want in a championship game.”

Forget about what happened in October.

“They’re different. We’re different. The environment is different,” Heupel said. “Let’s go play ball.”

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