We think it’s fair to say that this website has become somewhat of a repository for negative information about the school we lovingly refer to as “C.Florida.” But believe it or not, we actually don’t take all this stuff THAT seriously, and we firmly believe there are wonderful people that are Knights. Like my friend Jeremy. And Meme Legend ‘Dancing Sam’ from last year’s game in the pic above (seriously, she was delightful). And Brandon Helwig of ucf.rivals.com.
Brandon has been at it forever covering his alma mater, and whether it’s recruiting or the team on the field, his site is a fantastic resource for all things Knights. And he’s also someone that understands this is just college sports and not the end of the world. We very much like that worldview... until a close game in the 4th quarter when we’re offering to sacrifice relatives to the Karma Gods for a win.
Brandon was kind enough to answer some questions for us ahead of eighth edition of The War On I-4, and we’ll save the snark for another post: this is genuinely appreciated. Many thanks to Brandon for the time.
1. Our two teams look the opposite of each other. USF's offense is transcendent (#2 by S&P), but the defense is burning tires. Your defense looks quite efficient (23rd by S&P), but the offense can't get out of its own way. What's been the biggest issue moving the ball this year?
Rome wasn't built in a day and neither is Scott Frost's Oregon-inspired #UCFast offense (UCF loves hashtags). To be brutally honest, the offensive line wasn't recruited for this up-tempo style and that unit took a big hit several weeks ago when the best player in the starting five, Tyler Hudanick, went down with a season-ending knee injury. The running game has evaporated since then, putting more on young quarterback McKenzie Milton's shoulders. He's fleet of foot - a trait that comes in quite handy when protection isn't always there - but unpolished when it comes to the passing game. He's had a tendency to sail passes lately and isn't much of a deep threat, allowing opponents to stack the box. Penalties have also been a nemesis, be it the random hold or illegal receiver downfield, something that happens when Milton is running for his life while trying to find anybody open.
2. The thing we noticed in the game last year was UCF's lack of speed on defense. They looked like they were in cement against USF skill guys, but you were also playing so many true freshmen and guys that weren't ready because of injuries. Has the #UCFast thing caught on that quickly? How has Frost gotten this defense so much better already?
It's #UCFast on offense, #UCFierce on defense. Again, UCF loves hashtags. The program motto now is #RiseAndConquer and don't forget to #ChargeOn. As for playing in cement, you won't say that this year. New defensive coordinator Erik Chinander is a Broyles Award candidate and for good reason - he's turned a horrid defense into one of the best in the conference, even if stat numbers don't always back that up. The defense has given UCF a chance to win every game other than Michigan and lately has been scoring as many touchdowns as the offense has.
Chinander implemented a 3-4 over the previous 4-3 and has found gems in previously underutilized players. Shaquem Griffin was an afterthought in George O'Leary's program. Chinander moved him from safety to outside linebacker and now he's at the top of the team leader board in tackles and leads the conference in sacks with 11. Oh yeah, he doesn't have a hand, but that's irrelevant. He's a hell of a football player. Other players in a similar boat are Demeitre Brim and Mark Rucker. Brim saw minimal action and now may be an NFL prospect. Rucker leads the team in tackles despite barely playing in his first three years.
Secondary-wise, UCF starts four experienced seniors which have been the rock on that side. It's allowed a young and lacking-in-depth defensive line to catch their stride and not become a liability as some thought they might.
3. McKenzie Milton: is he the future? Does he have a potential monster game in him, or is he just a placeholder until Frost can get someone else in for 2017?
If you ask Frost, Milton is the future. Coaches and players have pointed out similarities to Johnny Manziel as far as his playmaking ability. Secretly, Frost was probably saw Justin Holman's early-season hamstring injury as an overall net positive for the program - it allowed him to replace the popular senior, someone who wasn't really a fit for this style offense anyway, and play the promising young freshman to groom him for the future.
Frost has been unwavering in his support for Milton, refusing to play Holman even while Milton has struggled. Would it have made a difference? Maybe not, but we'll never know. Holman was probably made to look better than he was in 2014 because UCF had an outstanding group of receivers, but Milton has mightily struggled in the passing game himself, sailing balls and he doesn't have Holman's ability to throw a deep ball. Granted, the offensive line isn't very good and Milton often is running for his life.
That said, there are signs Milton can be a star. It might be a little over the top to throw out the Johnny Football comparisons, but you can see what people are talking about - at times. If UCF can improve on the line next year and Milton improves from a passing standpoint, yes, he could be a potential monster.
He'll have every opportunity to continue being the man in 2017. Unless a transfer falls into UCF's lap, the staff appears content with bringing in three high school quarterbacks in the recruiting class. Nearly every other quarterback currently on the roster will either graduate (Holman, Nick Patti) or likely transfer (Tyler Harris).
4. USF really, really struggles to stop the run. Which backs and play-packages should the Bulls focus on to get off the field? And how much does it look like the full Oregon "Blur" offense?
That's great news for UCF because it's been a struggle to run in recent weeks. If they can get a run game going with the trio of Dontravious Wilson, Jawon Hamilton and Adrian Killins, I'd dare say UCF has a chance to actually make something happen on offense. As for whether #UCFast looks like the "Blur," they aren't yet close. The playmaking positions are young and the offensive line just isn't there from a talent and depth standpoint. They try to go fast, but in reality that's been counterproductive because in recent weeks it's just putting the defense back on the field that much more quickly. I would expect Frost to pull out his full bag of tricks in this game because in some respects UCF has nothing to lose. They've got the sixth win for bowl eligiblity so that pressure is off and everybody is expecting a USF win, especially with the conference still being up for grabs on the Bulls' end. He's not afraid of going for two after touchdowns (he did that after the first score last week), faking a punt on 4th-and-8 and going for it on 4th-and-1 deep in their own territory.
5. You've seen Quinton Flowers and Marlon Mack and all the USF skill guys: what do you think UCF will try to do to slow them down? What's the plan of attack?
If I had the answers, I'd be coaching. I haven't seen every USF game, typically catching the ones on TV when they don't conflict with UCF games, but I'm not sure many teams have really completely slowed them from a defensive standpoint. USF is No. 1 in the conference in offense for a reason. The easy thing to say is "do what Temple did" but that really was more of the Temple offense controlling the ball, keeping those guys off the field. UCF knows all about that - that's the key reason the Owls were able to come back on the Knights and win in the last seconds. Defensively, UCF's secondary is pretty good in coverage. I'd suspect UCF to continue be aggressive as they've been this season, hoping to put USF in long situations.
6. What's the best and worst thing about this rivalry?
Ah, the rivalry. It almost seemed more fun when USF wanted to completely ignore the existence of it. The jabs from Jim Leavitt, Matt Grothe and crew. The demoralization that came with the 64-12 loss in 2007, something UCF fans still talk about to this day. Fast forward to several years to the American era and I'm sure Bulls fans were seething on Jan. 1, 2014 - the day UCF won a BCS bowl game against Baylor and USF held a press conference to celebrate a mascot, all coming after a season in which USF really had a great chance to knock off the Knights before UCF picked off Mike White late.
I feel like the rivalry really hasn't hit its stride because it seems both teams have been on opposite sides of the spectrum when these games have been played. In the first set of four games, it wasn't really a fair matchup when USF having the BCS BIG EAST advantages. UCF was really good in 2013 and 2014, USF not so much. USF was improving in 2015, while UCF was awful with everybody just wanting the season to end. The gap may be closing this year, but it would be more fun if we entered the final game with the division on the line.
This rivalry could use some controversy to help get things rolling. I'd love to see some shots taken - verbally of course - from coaches or players. But everybody just seems to get along now. The schools are all buddy-buddy in developing this trophy (it is super cool as far as trophies go). I get the sense Frost and Taggart probaby are pretty cool with each other, a far departure from the chilly GOL-Taggart relationship. And even though UCF fans may not want to publicly admit it, there's a respect for Taggart and what he's accomplished when you consider the early seasons were certainly rife with difficulties.
Maybe the game itself will provide us what we need to really take this game to the next level because I'm not sure it's resonating on a wavelength bigger than the hardcore UCF and USF fanbases quite yet.
UCF knows they have a defense that can hang with USF, even with how good Flowers, Mack and company are, but they'll need a big day from the offense to try and keep pace. That offense has struggled of late, so they'll need to find some success early. I think UCF can hang around for a half, but so far the offense hasn't proven consistent enough to sustain drives and eventually that trickles down to affect defensive performance. I think UCF holds USF under their average, but the Knights don't have enough offense to keep up. 35-24, USF.