From: Orlando Sentinel
Date of Publication: September 1, 2017
Here are three things we learned from UCF’s 61-17 season opening win over FIU at Spectrum Stadium in Thursday night:
1. Quarterback McKenzie Milton has improved significantly since last season.
It was an up-and-down freshman year for Milton. He was forced to step into the starting role early due to an injury to Justin Holman and showed enough flashes of potential to keep the job. But he also struggled at times the second half of the season.
After Milton was not officially named the starter until the end of preseason camp, it was unclear how well he could be expected to perform in the season opener.
Milton responded by playing the best game of his career. He had a huge first half for the Knights, going 15-of-19 passing with three touchdown strikes.
“… [Last year] was challenging at times, but I definitely feel that I’ve grown a bit and this team’s grown a bit, too,” Milton said. “I think just all around, we’re a better ball club and I didn’t feel like I had to prove anything. I just wanted to go out there and do my job.”
Milton finished the game with 360 passing yards, a career-high four passing touchdowns and a completion rate of 76 percent. After often struggling to complete deep passes last season, he showed off improved range against FIU, completing three 50-plus yard passes.
But it was not a perfect game. He still made a couple of bad decisions, including a play that resulted in an interception when he threw the ball downfield even though the Knights didn’t have an open receiver.
But overall, the game was a clear step forward for the sophomore quarterback.
2. UCF has to work on running the ball.
While the Knights had a strong passing performance, the team often struggled to develop a rhythm running the ball. UCF finished with three rushing touchdowns, but some of those were set up by long pass plays and the Knights averaged 3.3 yards per run.
“We need to run it better than that,” coach Scott Frost said. “I think their defense was loading the box, they were getting safeties down in quarters and essentially they had eight guys, sometimes nine guys in the box on us. That makes it a little tougher to run, but I’d like to see us be able to run for more yards than that.”
Sophomore running back Jawon Hamilton led the way for the Knights, rushing for 56 yards and a touchdown. But he also contributed one of UCF’s two fumbles, which was recovered by FIU.
Throughout preseason camp, both the coaching staff and players talked about the improvement they had seen from the team’s defense. Despite losing several team leaders from last year’s team, players said the unit improved and that showed in the home opener.
The Knights limited the Panthers to 10 first-half points and forced a variety of turnovers throughout the game. The defense finished with three recovered fumbles, an interception and a sack.
After scoring several times last year, the defense once again put up points for the Knights, recording a safety in the second quarter.
Despite the strong performance, there were some mistakes in the secondary. Early in the game, redshirt senior defensive back Chris Johnson failed to break up an FIU pass, allowing a 75-yard touchdown.
“Gave up one long play in the first half; we gotta fix those things,” Frost said. “But I think we played really hard on defense, stopped the majority of what they presented to us. … [Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander] and his staff do a great job and when you get guys playing as hard as they’ve gotten those guys to play, good things are gonna happen.”