UCF presents a quality, proven challenger for LSU in Fiesta Bowl

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Darriel Mack

You can make an argument that the Central Florida-LSU matchup in the Fiesta Bowl is the most intriguing bowl game for a variety of reasons.

For LSU, this contest represents much more than just the chance to claim a final victim in a 10-win season. It means a lot more perhaps to the other side.

Despite the impressive 25-game winning streak, UCF is again taking on the role of a Rocky Balboa with something to prove. The Knights took down Auburn, 34-27, in the Peach Bowl last season. A win here over LSU would mean more.

UCF is the spokesperson for all schools who feel like they have been shunned by the pollsters. The Knights will be sky-high in Glendale. LSU had better be prepared. “This game represents a lot,” explained Saints rookie receiver Tre’Quan Smith, a former UCF star. “(UCF) represents a lot of underdogs. If we win this, it will give the program the respect that we deserve. It means a lot. We want to play against the best. We want respect from the committee. We feel like we’ve earned it.”

UCF is a collection of overlooked, under appreciated.  “There are no 4 or 5 star players,” Tre’Quan Smith continued.” The team is made up of over-achievers. They feel (like) they have something to prove.”

“People don’t give them any respect. There are players on that team who feel they are going to show what they can do. It’s not all about 4 and 5 star rankings. It’s all about (players’) heart.”

This contest could have an impact for the future of the Knights program. With a win in the Fiesta, UCF would probably land among the top 5-6 teams in the 2019 college football preseason polls. It would give them a running start for the next College Football Playoffs.

On the flip side, a win by the Tigers would not only break the Knights’ winning streak but notch a victory over a quality opponent with a lot at stake. It would send a message as to how good LSU can be moving forward. Saying this may sound like blasphemy but this could be the biggest victory of the season. Yes, maybe even bigger than the win over Georgia at Tiger Stadium.

While the Tigers are also looking to start a new winning streak, the Knights have approached each game like it’s a one game streak. Tre’Quan Smith was a prominent member of the ’17 team when the wins began to pile up.

“Nothing has changed  since the streak began,” explained Smith, the leading UCF receiver last season with 59 catches for 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns. “It’s the chemistry, what we built there. It’s special. Even with the coaching change (Scott Frost last season to Josh Heupel now), everyone still has the same goal.”

The Knights have weapons on both sides of the ball. They are confident, cocky and expecting to win. They are not intimidated by the big stage.

Second in the AAC in scoring offense and scoring defense, UCF has a potent attack that is currently No. 6 in the nation in scoring with 44.2 points per game and third in country with 545 yards a contest. Their 276.5 yards rushing ranks seventh in the country and their plus-14 turnover margin is a key part of the winning formula.

McKenzie Milton, the AAC’s second best passer, is unavailable due to a gruesome leg injury. He had 2,663 yards passing, 25 touchdown passes and six interceptions.

Redshirt freshman QB Darriel Mack will be at the throttle. The dual threat threw for 348 yards, with a pair of touchdown passes and an eye-popping four rushing scores against Memphis in the conference title game. Mack was not highly recruited out of Norfolk, Virginia with offers from Marshall, UCF, Maryland, Old Dominion, Pittsburgh, Va. Tech and Virginia. He totaled 4,132 total yards as a senior in high school with 52 touchdowns, 10th most in Virginia history.

Gabriel Davis, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, brings size to the position as a natural replacement for Smith. He has 50 catches for 756 yards and six touchdowns this season.

Sophomore running back Greg McRae has 1,101 yards rushing (9 yard average per carry) and nine touchdowns rushing while junior Adrian Killens has explosive speed (4.39 forty) with 698 yards rushing.

UCF steals a page from the Run N’ Gun attack. The receivers have 2-3 options in each route. The QB will read his first option before continuing through his progressions. If the DB shows one coverage, it will determine which route the receiver will run. Much depends on coverage.

In order for this offense to gain success in the passing game, the UCF offensive line must afford the passer ample time to go through progressions or release the ball. Pressure from the LSU defense can disrupt the flow or cause Mack to become more of a runner by force rather than design.

Sophomore defensive back Richie Gant paces the Knights on defense with 102 tackles, six interceptions and three forced fumbles. Defensive end Titus Davis has 6.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss .

John Curtis alum Nate Evans, a junior linebacker, has 90 stops. Brother Martin product Brendon Hayes, a junior defensive end, leads the Knights has eight tackles for loss.

Tre’Quan Smith holds a special bond with the New Orleans natives. “I’m great friends with (Evans and Hayes),” he chuckled. “They play hearts out. They are great guys. They both play all out each time they are on the field.”

Even without Milton, the team can be a force but he will be tough to replace. “This team can get better,” Smith said. “Mack stepped up his game. McKenzie is a true leader. Everyone looks up to him, from the team, to the staff. The entire program looks up to him. ”

Randy Shannon is the architect of the UCF 4-3 defense, adding speed with former linebckers now employed at defensive end. Shannon was head coach at Miami from 2007-’10 and Florida’s defensive coordinator the past three seasons.

It will be a chess match throughout. Both LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and Shannon will attempt to keep the offenses on their toes.

Can LSU win? Absolutely. The Tigers are favored for a reason. But it will require a solid performance in all phases. UCF is a quality opponent.

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