No. 9 Central Florida puts perfect mark up against South Florida.
It has been more than a month since South Florida has won a game. It has been just over 23 months since UCF has lost one.
That’s the situation when the Bulls (7-4, 3-4 American Athletic Conference) host the No. 9 Knights (10-0, 7-0 AAC) Friday evening.
Kickoff at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium is 4:15 p.m. ET on ABC.
“A huge rivalry game inside the state,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said. “Our kids are very looking forward to the opportunity to go to Tampa and go compete this week.”
The Knights have not lost a game since the Cure Bowl on Dec. 17, 2016, when Arkansas State romped 31-13. They opened the 2017 campaign with a 61-17 rout of Florida International and haven’t stopped winning since.
“Even a change of coaches between the 2017 and 2018 seasons with Heupel succeeding Scott Frost hasn’t slowed UCF’s winning, which now encompasses 23 consecutive games.
“You look at it and you’re right, there’s two different staffs. But the quarterback is what really makes them go,” said Bulls coach Charlie Strong, referring to UCF junior McKenzie Milton. “He’s a really good football player.
“He plays well last season and then he comes back and you look at what they’ve done even with them losing some players he’s been able to keep the team together. When you start winning, you start playing with confidence, and that’s what they have going on right now.
“They just feel like they’re not going to lose. When you have that attitude it’s hard to lose.”
Early on, Strong’s Bulls looked to be building some momentum toward an AAC East showdown between two undefeated teams in the regular-season finale, but since running off seven consecutive victories, the Bulls apparently have forgotten how to win.
Their winning streak ended on Oct. 27 with a 57-36 loss at Houston, and losses to Tulane 41-15, Cincinnati 35-23, and Temple 27-17 have followed in November.
“Central Florida is playing with a lot of confidence, something we don’t have right now after suffering a fourth straight loss,” Strong said. “But we’re really excited about the matchup.”
The Bulls have seen their offensive output fall from 611 yards in a win over Connecticut to 467 against Houston, 432 against Tulane, 313 against Cincy, and a season-low 266 against Temple.
But Strong has memories of last year’s meeting with UCF that the Knights won 49-42 on a kickoff return that provided UCF with the decisive score with 1:28 remaining.
“You had two teams that were evenly matched,” Strong said, “and it came down to a kickoff return.”
UCF has had one close call since then, a 31-30 comeback win at Memphis and was less than impressive in a 52-40 win over Temple, rallying from a 34-28 halftime deficit. But after disposing of Navy 35-24, the Knights won a key showdown with then-No. 19 Cincinnati 38-13 last week.
Milton passed for 268 yards with touchdown passes of 17, 36, and 42 yards. He also had a non-scoring 47-yard completion. It is that big-play capability that concerns Strong.
“It’s a lot of home run balls for them,” he said. “We can’t allow them to take the ball and pitch it over our head for 60-, 70-yard plays.
“If anything, you’ve got to make them drive the ball, and you’ve got to be great in the red zone.”
The victory over Cincinnati pushed the Knights ahead of the Big Ten’s Ohio State in this week’s College Football Playoff ranking, but Heupel continues to play the can’t-do-anything-about-that card.
“It’s really outside our control,” he said. “Our players have had a competitive maturity in that they’ve focused on the task at hand. The only thing we’re concerned about is South Florida this week.
“That’s the only thing we can control and really all we can control is today and how we prepare for that. Everything else will take care of itself. That’s out main focus and what we’re going to put our energy into.”