No. 12 UCF hosts Navy in search of 22nd straight victory

Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton returned from a one-game absence because of injury to throw three touchdown passes against Temple last week.Photo Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Sports Xchange

The other has lost six consecutive outings and is trying to avoid its longest slide in 16 years.

That’s the situation as No. 12 Central Florida hosts struggling Navy in an American Athletic Conference matchup Saturday afternoon in Orlando.

Kickoff at Spectrum Stadium is noon ET on ESPN2.

The Golden Knights (8-0, 5-0 AAC) enter the weekend as one of four undefeated FBS teams in the country after rallying for a 52-40 victory over Temple in their last outing. The Knights have not skipped a beat since coach Josh Heupel took over the program when Scott Frost left for Nebraska after last season’s 13-0 run.

“It’s impressive that they’ve kind of moved on with a new coaching staff,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “The players have adjusted to the new culture, and they’ve continued to win. So super impressed with them.”

Niumatalolo’s Midshipmen (2-7, 1-4 AAC) haven’t won since posting 22-21 and 51-21 victories over Memphis and Lehigh in the first three weeks of the season. Worse from their perspective, they are coming off their “worst” game of the year, according to Niumataloloa, a 42-0 thumping at Cincinnati last week.

“We’re licking our wounds right now,” Niumatalolo said. “We got beat pretty good by a good Cincinnati team. We’ve never been beat like that.

“We’ve got to bounce back against the best team in our conference, undefeated. It’s going to be another tall order for us.”

The Navy coach is particularly impressed by UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton, who returned after a one-game absence because of injury to pass for 312 yards and three touchdowns against Temple last week. He also rushed for a touchdown as the Knights outscored the Owls 24-6 in the second half.

“McKenzie is one of the best quarterbacks in the country,” Niumatalolo said. “They’re pretty much unstoppable on offense.”

Navy went with a new starter at quarterback with Zach Abey, who started six games at wide receiver earlier this year.

“He did OK,” Niumatalalolo said. “Didn’t turn the ball over, so that’s a good job taking care of the ball. For the most he got us in the right plays and got the ball to the right person for the most part.

“The other part is making sure of things just recognition-wise, that he can see things and see what people are going. That’s probably the next phase that we’d like him to get to. He did some good things, but we still scored zero points. We haven’t been shut out in a long time.”

Milton got off to bit of a slow start and lost playmaker receiver Gabriel Davis to injury after he caught two passes for 63 yards in the first quarter. Davis is listed No. 1 on the depth chart this week.

Other playmakers picked up the slack with running back Greg McRae rushing for 188 yards and a touchdown, running back Taj McGowan scoring twice, and receiver Dredrick Snelson snagging a touchdown pass.

“Obviously, we’re excited that we were able to find a way to win the game against Temple,” Heupel said.

The win not only extended the Knights’ overall winning streak it also kept them in the conversation if not for a berth in the College Football Playoff at least for a second consecutive New Year’s Six bowl spot.

They also kept their lead in the AAC East ahead of Cincinnati and Temple, who are each 4-1 in league play.

Heupel referred to all that, however, as “outside noise.”

“The only thing we talk about inside of our program is the next opponent,” he said. “We understand the test you have every week in this league.”

His concern with Navy is not the Middies’ record but the uniqueness of their option running game. Despite the off game last week, the Middies have averaged 286.9 yards rushing.

“They force you to be extremely disciplined and have great eyes, trust your keys, and make plays in space,” Heupel said.