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Game Rewind: UCF’s Comeback Victory in the 2018 AAC Championship Game

Memphis appeared to finally conquer their arch-rival - until Darriel Mack’s 4 second-half TD’s.

AAC Championship - Memphis v Central Florida Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The 2018 American Athletic Conference Championship game had all the makings of a classic contest.

Defending AAC champion UCF went from being the laughingstock of college football after an 0-12 season three years prior, to one the biggest lightning rod in the sport following an undefeated 2017 season that saw the program claim its first national championship as recognized by the Colley Matrix poll.

While Central Florida rose to the top of the Group of Five ranks, arguably the biggest threat to their throne was the Memphis Tigers. Led by head coach Mike Norvell, the Tigers’ program had undergone a makeover of their own.

At the start of the decade, Memphis was coming off of a one-win campaign and wouldn’t win more than four games in a single season until 2014.

Norvell took the team to its first AAC championship game in 2017, where the Tigers lost a double-overtime thriller to the Knights in a game where Memphis held leads in the second half and overtime.

NCAA Football: Memphis at South Florida
Mike Norvell led Memphis to three division titles during his tenure with the Tigers.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the 2018 season, it was known that the road to a conference title would lead through UCF. During the season, the teams met in Memphis where once again the Tigers wouldn’t be able to hold onto a lead.

Led by the AAC Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback McKenzie Milton, the Knights overcame a 16-point deficit to beat Memphis 31-30.

The final week of the conference slate would see Memphis clinch the West division title for the second-consecutive season and secure a rematch with UCF.

For the Knights, they would defeat rival South Florida to extend their winning streak to 24 games, but lose Milton to a devastating knee injury.

Let’s revisit the classic contest through the perspective of our Memphis writer Joe Broback and Eric Henry, who covered the game at Spectrum Stadium for UDD.

November 24, 2018 - Milton’s Injury

EH: When it happened you could feel the wind get knocked out of the entire stadium. The biggest thing I remember was post-game being outside the UCF locker room. Josh Heupel using the words “traumatic knee injury”, Darriel Mack looking somber during his presser, and the speculation as to Milton’s health.

JB: No one wants to see a player get hurt, especially not one the caliber of McKenzie Milton. Memphis wanted revenge from the year before, and they wanted UCF at full strength. College football fans all across the country felt for the Knights and Milton, but the Tigers didn’t believe that their opposition would lay down and give up. It would still be a challenging test to pass.

December 1, 2018 - AAC Championship Game

EH: I’ve been inside Spectrum Stadium countless times and I have never felt an atmosphere like the one before this game. Every seat in the stadium had a Hawaiian lei on it to honor Milton, including the press box. With how much UCF had riding on that game, it felt like the entire Knights’ community knew it would take a banded effort to replace their star quarterback.

Spectrum Stadium has become one of the toughest venues in college football.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

JB: The atmosphere in Spectrum Stadium wasn’t the same as it was in 2017, but not in a bad way. This year, the fans were backing the Knights and the Milton family during their tough time. It was a different kind of energy, but still, one that gave the Knights motivation to reclaim their crown. crown.

First Quarter - Memphis strikes on the opening drive

EH: That crowd was at a fever pitch by kickoff. What gets lost in the pomp and circumstance is that Memphis had lost the previous 12 meetings to UCF. Take into account the previous two tries where it looked like the Tigers would finally win and it seemed UCF had their number. Then, Darrell Henderson scored on the third play of the game. What a statement.

JB: After losing three straight over the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Memphis was trying anything to make a statement and punch UCF if the mouth. The plan? A heavy dose of Darrell Henderson and the run game. At least that’s what many of us thought. Memphis opened with a couple passes by the inexperienced Brady White, and then lightning struck. Under two minutes into the game, Darrell Henderson was off to the races, and the Tigers got the start they desperately needed. There was a feeling that the Knights were in trouble.

First Quarter - Mack fumble turns into points for Memphis

EH: The roar was deafening when DJ Mack took the field for UCF’s opening drive. I remember seeing him signal to the crowd to quiet down so he could call out the play. Unfortunately for the Knights, he fumbled the ball away to Memphis. Two plays later the Tigers were ahead by two scores.

JB: Hope quickly turned into concern for the Knights when Mack took the field. Memphis’ defense went after him hard and created a turnover early to send a message of their own. The offense promptly responded by adding another Henderson score. Memphis was here to make a statement. A big one. And they were well on their way.

First Quarter - UCF gets on the board

EH: One of the biggest questions heading into the game was were the Knights a one-man team? Seeing the offense respond with a touchdown was a positive sign that the team could win a shootout without their gunslinger under center.

First Quarter - Another long Memphis TD run

EH: Because they finished that year 8-6, it’s easy to forget just how good Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. were. They combined for over 3,000 rushing yards in 2018 and this drive would be Taylor Jr.’s time to shine. After UCF forced a third down, he ran for a 70-yard score to make it 21-7. That was the score that squarely put momentum with the Tigers.

JB: Memphis wasn’t even hiding it at this point. They were going to run the ball down UCF’s throat, and it didn’t matter who they put behind center. Taylor lined up in the wildcat, took the ball around the left edge, and showed that Darrell Henderson wasn’t the only Tigers running back with some wheels.

First Quarter - Deja Vu as Mack fumbles for the second time

EH: When Memphis strip-sacked Mack on UCF’s third drive inside of the Knights’ territory, that felt as if it could be a game-changer. Consider the fact that UCF only had three fumbles the entire season to that point and it became very concerning to see them cough up two fumbles in less than 15 minutes of play.

JB: If there was a time for panic, this was it. Memphis was up two scores, and Mack coughs it up again. Memphis’ offense couldn’t do anything wrong at this point, but the drive stalled and they settled for a field goal. Not the result they wanted, but they were still in control.

Second Quarter - A lucky bounce saves UCF from disaster

EH: You had to wonder how Mack would respond under this type of spotlight. From the time UCF took the field in warmups, he never showed any signs that the stage was too big for him. On the Knights’ fourth drive, he settled in and led the offense down the field. However, as he leaped across the goal-line trying to score, he lost the ball for the third time. Luckily, sixth-year tight end Michael Colubiale was there to recover it in the endzone for the score to make it 24-14.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 01 AAC Championship Game - UCF v Memphis
Darriel Mack Jr.’s fumble almost was a backbreaker for UCF. Luckily, the Knights would recover for the TD.
Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

JB: Eventually, Tigers fans expected their defense to give a little against such an explosive offense, but they almost got another lucky bounce. Not a single Memphis player had a realistic shot of grabbing Mack’s fumble in the end zone, but doing so might have changed the outcome of the game.

Second Quarter - Henderson scores from long-distance again

JB: Again, Memphis wasn’t trying to hide the fact that they wanted to run the football. They’d shown it all year. Henderson and Taylor were dominating, so why try anything else? It wasn’t time to reinvent the wheel, but in the long run of this game, it might have been a good idea to sprinkle in some more opportunities for Brady White and the passing game.

Second Quarter - UCF’s offense finally settles in

EH: The penultimate drive of the half of UCF saw Mack finally look comfortable in the pocket. He threw a strike to Gabe Davis that put the offense in Memphis territory, followed by a Tim Tebow-esque jump pass two plays later for a four-yard TD pass. It also saw the emotionless Josh Heupel give us this gif as he fired up the Central Florida crowd. Score: Memphis 31, UCF 21

JB: Even though UCF’s offense settled in and started scoring, Memphis felt they controlled their destiny. Heupel pumping up the crowd, in hindsight, was a sign of the changes to come. While the Tigers offense continued to put up points, the defense began struggling to slow down the Knights offense. Memphis had the offense to match scores with UCF, however, and the bounces kept coming their way.

Second Quarter - The Otis Anderson Dichotomy

EH: Since his freshman season in 2017, I’ve been a believer that Otis Anderson could be one of the most dynamic players in the nation.

Following a stop on the next Memphis drive, Anderson muffed a punt deep in UCF territory - allowing the Tigers to score on a Henderson four-yard touchdown pass. Remember his fumble when we come out of halftime.

JB: Everything, and I mean everything, was going right for the Tigers. A 38-21 lead heading into halftime would make them comfortable against any opponent. UCF couldn’t stop the running game. Brady White was making a couple throws, but the Tigers didn’t need much from him. The mostly one-dimensional attack was working, and there wasn’t an apparent need to switch things up yet.

Third Quarter - The Otis Anderson Dichotomy - Part Two

EH: UCF was in desperate need of a touchdown to begin the second half. Who would they turn to - Mr. Anderson. Mack found him for a 54-yard TD catch. Give the Knights’ fans credit as well. Whether it had to do with the 24-game win streak or just a sheer belief in their team, they kept the energy level throughout the comeback.

Florida A&M v Central Florida
Anderson has accounted for over 2,500 all-purpose yards in his UCF career.
Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

JB: It wasn’t like Memphis didn’t know UCF could score quickly. They knew that, and it’s why they planned to score early and often in this game. Mike Norvell knew what his team needed to do, and scoring at least 40 points felt like a safe goal. So when Otis Anderson scored to start the second half, there wasn’t any panic. That came later.

Third Quarter - Momentum shifts as the Knights begin to Charge On

EH: Following the score to make it 38-28, the wheels started to fall off for Mike Norvell’s team. Brady White was forced to pass once the Memphis rushing game stalled. The next Tigers drive stalled and following an Anderson punt return deep into Memphis territory, Mack scored his first of three second-half rushing TD’s. The following Tigers’ drive saw success - but they couldn’t muster a TD despite three chances from inside the 10-yard-line. Kicker Riley Patterson gives Memphis a six-point lead to begin the 4th quarter.

AAC Championship - Memphis v Central Florida
Memphis quarterback Brady White struggled in the second half to move the Tigers down the field.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

JB: When your attack becomes so focused on one thing, teams eventually do anything they can to stop it. UCF decided they had enough of the Tigers’ rushing attack and put an end to it. Almost literally. Brady White was forced to be a factor in the offense, and it ultimately spelled doom for the Tigers.

Fourth Quarter - UCF takes its first lead and doesn’t surrender

EH: At the start of the final quarter you could feel the Bounce House (specifically the press box) rocking. Memphis forced a fourth-and-one on the UCF side of the field, but any chance they had of stealing back the momentum went out the door on a Greg McCrae 50-yard run to the Memphis two-yard-line. DJ Mack would punch it in to give UCF their first lead of the game.

AAC Championship - Memphis v Central Florida
Mack’s four rushing TD’s helped him earn game MVP honors.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Patterson missed two field goals in the 2017 AAC title game and unfortunately for him - he would miss with a chance to give his team the lead on the next drive. Mack’s final two rushing TD’s would give his team a 56-41 win and he earned game MVP honors.

JB: Let me reiterate, the defensive struggles for Memphis were expected. The Tigers defense couldn’t compete with the amount of talent the Knights put on the field, but they could limit their explosiveness. The offense’s disappearance in the second half is to blame for the meltdown. Henderson barely rushed for positive yardage in the second half after rushing for over 200 in the first. White couldn’t complete a pass when they needed, and three points in the second half weren’t going to cut it. Memphis couldn’t make adjustments quick enough, and UCF took that opportunity and ran with it.

Final Thoughts

EH: As I left the press box to head to the post-game press room, the elevators downstairs weren’t working. I mention this because shell-shocked members of the Memphis coaching staff along with myself had to walk down several flights of stairs to leave the press box. As if losing in that fashion wasn’t punishment enough - they had to encounter the euphoria of hundreds of Knights’ fans to get to the locker room.

Mike Norvell, Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. answer questions from the media following the AAC title game.

The press conference was no different - Mike Norvell, Henderson, and Taylor looked bewildered at the fact that they had lost.

For the Knights, ESPN’s Brock Huard summed up the game’s events on the call - “If you thought this was a one-man show, you thought wrong.”

He was correct - the Magic Kingdom’s most improbable tale would continue as the Knights’ win streak reached 25 straight games.

JB: Mike Norvell and his staff had a great plan heading into this game. That was evident by the 38 points they scored in the first half. What they didn’t have an answer for is what to do when UCF took away the one thing they were doing well. Maybe they ran out of juice?

The Tigers needed some luck and bounces to go their way just to get to this game, and maybe they ran out of the magic in the second half. It’s fitting that Mack produced the last four scores for the Knights.

All eyes were on him the entire game, and he went from losing the football multiple times to making a statement to give the Knights another conference championship.