UCF may have gotten last weekend off, but the Knights will go into Thursday night’s affair with Temple in a clash of American Athletic Conference East Division leaders unsure of the status of quarterback McKenzie Milton.
Kickoff for the No. 9 Knights (7-0, 4-0 AAC) and unranked Owls (5-3, 4-0 AAC) at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando is 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Milton did not play in the Knights’ last outing Oct. 20 at East Carolina when they ran their overall winning streak to a nation-leading 20 games, and UCF coach Josh Heupel said on the AAC coaches’ conference call this week that his status remains uncertain.
“KZ is day-to-day at this point and will be a game-time decision,” Heupel said.
With Milton out with an undisclosed injury, redshirt freshman backup Darriel Mack Jr. earned his first career start and, after a shaky start, finished with a game-high 120 yards rushing and 69 passing with 12 completions in 20 attempts against East Carolina.
“Darriel did a fantastic job,” Heupel said. “Managed the game well. Took care of the football the entire night. Didn’t have huge passing numbers as far as yards, but was really efficient and was really on-target with some of our deep balls that we ended up not catching or not making the play on.
“I thought he was a great decision-maker.”
The Knights trailed at the end of the first quarter for just the second time this season but quickly overcame the 3-0 deficit and led 27-10 at the half on their way to the 37-10 victory over the Pirates.
With Milton still sidelined, Mack took all the snaps in UCF’s two practice sessions in the off week.
“They are both capable,” Heupel said of the two quarterbacks. “There are some things that (Mack) in Week 1 would want to do a bit differently but you saw him play with a ton of confidence and poise. A lot of that comes from the work both of those guys have put in during the offseason.”
Temple coach Geoff Collins lauded Milton’s ability to improvise. Milton hasn’t run that much — 30 times for 204 yards or 34 yards a game — while passing for nearly 300 an outing.
“He’s as dynamic player as there is in college football,” Collins said, “but then Mack comes in, and they did more designed quarterback runs with him.”
Collins also noted the supporting cast around Mack. UCF running back Adrian Killins has rushed for 429 yards and caught eight passes for 227 yards (a 28.4 per catch average). Wide receiver Gabriel Davis has 33 receptions for 493 yards, Tre Nixon 27 for 364, and Dredrick Snelson 24 for 310.
“They’ve got skill guys all over the place, running back, receiver, and the tight end does a lot of things for them,” Collins said, referring to Michael Colubiale, who has 15 catches for 219 yards and a touchdown. “And a big experienced offensive line that plays really, really well.”
Collins’ Owls also have not played since Oct. 20 when they knocked off then-unbeaten and No. 20 Cincinnati 24-17 in overtime. Quarterback Anthony Russo took the Owls 75 yards in seven plays for the tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter, then found Isaiah Wright on third down in the overtime for a 25-yard touchdown.
Russo was 23-of-31 passing for 300 yards for the game.
Collins cited Russo’s toughness down the stretch, a product, the coach said, of the “grueling” and “challenging” offseason program that the team goes through.
“Just to get through our offseason, to get through our spring ball, to get through preseason camp, you develop mental toughness in everything you do in our program,” Collins said. “Anthony Russo is one of those guys who doesn’t just survive those workouts but attacks them.”
The Owls’ leading rusher, running back Ryquell Armstead (626 yards in six games), also is a game-time decision because of an ankle injury.