When the No. 10 UCF Knights came out of their bye week in 2018, the stakes were undeniably different than those the unranked team faces now.
Going into the break in 2018, UCF had aspirations of the College Football Playoff after cruising past the ECU Pirates with redshirt freshman quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. at the helm, marking the first game quarterback McKenzie Milton hadn’t started since October 2016. The Knights would then add a victory to improve their winning streak to 20 consecutive games while providing some excitement about the younger recruiting class in the process.
Now, the unranked Knights must adjust to more attainable goals than last year. Despite losing two games in the span of three weeks following two seasons of regular-season perfection, UCF (4-2, 1-1 American Athletic Conference) will still preach going 1-0 every week this season.
“[The New Year’s Six bowl] was a big motivation but we just have to keep moving forward," defensive lineman Anthony Montalvo said. "I think everyone is just focused on the game ahead of us. When it comes to the end of the season, then we can focus on a bowl game.“
The redshirt sophomore couldn’t help but crack a smile Monday during the pregame press conference when repeating what he knows reporters have consistently heard throughout the Josh Heupel era: the game plan is to “Go 1-0 every week.”
“Everyone seems a lot more energized and healthy,” Montalvo said. “At the bye week, [teammates] have time with their families which helps them feel better, so I think we’re going to go out there and play our best game versus ECU.”
The Tampa native was all smiles this weekend, and understandably so after head coach Josh Heupel announced he had been placed on scholarship Thursday.
Heupel said he wants his team to be consistent and purposeful in how they prepare for the upcoming homecoming game, two words he often uses in describing the contributions from Montalvo.
“That’s a guy — since I stepped foot on campus —[who] has been just a great teammate,” Heupel said in response to the scholarship reveal video posted to UCF football’s Twitter account. “How he approaches his interactions with everybody inside this building, how he works — I don’t care if it’s inside the weight room, practice field — he’s willing to do anything and everything to help our football team. He is consistent with who he is, and I think that’s why you saw that reaction.”
Anthony Montalvo has worked tirelessly since arriving at UCF to hear these words... pic.twitter.com/LqbsNok9q1— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) October 10, 2019
The second year head coach said he spent the bye week watching game film, self-evaluating and putting up Halloween decorations with his daughter, Hannah.
Coming into Saturday’s matchup against ECU (3-3, 0-2 AAC), Heupel faces a similar dilemma former UCF head coach Scott Frost faced in 2016: ride with the true freshman quarterback from Hawaii or sub in a poised veteran to take the helm?
Freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel has dominated at the starting position while facing teams at the Bounce House, but he has left much to be desired outside of Spectrum Stadium.
The true freshman goes into the homecoming matchup with 15 touchdowns and 1,635 passing yards. Gabriel has been picked off five times, all of which have occurred during away games. Gabriel has not shied away from big plays though averaging 9.8 yards per pass play with a passer rating of 166.2.
Before he would go on to produce 23 consecutive wins and two perfect seasons, Milton dealt with his share of growing pains as a freshman. Milton’s only two multi-interception games occurred on the road in a season that ended in a loss to Arkansas State in the Autonation Cure Bowl in Orlando.
As a freshman, Milton completed 194-for-336 passes on 1,983 yards with seven interceptions and 10 touchdowns, according to his UCF Athletics bio. The former Mililani High School quarterback started in 10 games during the Knights’ 6-7 season in 2016.
Heupel said he expects his young quarterback to focus in on his routine and pay more attention to the little things to help combat the recent rise in turnovers the freshman has faced while on the road.
“Quarterbacks probably get a little too much of the credit when things are going really well but probably a little too much of the blame,” Heupel said. “There are things that Dillon has to do better, but there's also things the ten guys around him gotta do better too.”
The Pittsburgh Panthers held the Knights to only 85-yards rushing in a 35-34 victory over UCF on Sept. 21 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
While Cincinnati held onto a 27-24 lead by putting up a dominant defensive front, holding UCF to just 126-yards rushing while seemingly stuffing the Knights on every rushing attempt in the second half.
UCF junior running back Otis Anderson Jr. said he knows that the team has the talent to be able to score every single time they get inside the 20-yard line, but said he’s noticed opposing defenses scheming heavily for UCF’s deep running back group.
“It took us a little while to adjust … we are pretty much the same team, we can make the same plays, we just have to be able to adjust to the different circumstances,” Anderson Jr. said. “At the end of the day, it’s 11 men on the field. You adjust your blocking schemes differently, once you get to the second level, you have to be able to play. As long as the linemen are able to do their thing the running back should be able to take care of the rest.”
Despite the recent struggles offensively, one of those 11 men on the field, UCF junior wide receiver Gabriel Davis, has had a breakout season. He's already topped his career high in touchdowns set last season with eight so far on the year.
Heupel adamantly agreed that Davis’ evolution started with him dramatically changing his body.
“He’s the model of consistency and because of [his training regimen], his work habits and understanding what we do,” Heupel said during Monday’s pregame press conference. “Understanding defenses — and understanding and studying the guy he prepares to play against every week — he’s continued to get better and better. He’s worked himself into being a dominating player.”
Davis said he spent some of his bye week relaxing with family and friends out on the water, but said he can’t help but watch football while analyzing every defense he sees on screen.
His work ethic carries over into his off-the-field habits. The junior wide receiver — who leads the Knights’ offense averaging 111.50 yards per game — said every team has a target on UCF’s back, which makes his preparation that much more important.
It isn't a rare sight to see Davis put in the extra work on the JUG machine after practice, the junior interdisciplinary study major often uses the machine to test his ball skills.
“We went undefeated two years in a row. Everybody wants to beat the team that’s doing something like that. That shows how relevant we are,” Davis said. “A lot of people wanted to see us fall and now everybody is on our backs, but that’s a good thing. Everybody’s watching us now to see what UCF is going to do. We definitely made a statement in college football.”
The statement UCF has made in the past two seasons rang throughout the AAC and has brought out the best in its opponents defensively this year. UCF has averaged over 214 yards rushing this season with runningbacks Greg McCrae, Adrian Killins Jr. and Otis Anderson Jr. splitting the touches.
With a critical conference loss to the now ranked No. 21 Cincinnati Bearcats already in the books, the Knights face an uphill battle in returning to the AAC Championship game.
The Temple Owls currently sit atop the AAC East standings with the Bearcats, each with a 5-1 record on the season. The No. 19 SMU Mustangs remain undefeated through six games in the AAC West, with the Tulane Green Wave trailing right behind with just one loss this season.
The growth of the AAC comes as no surprise to Heupel, who said he was well aware of the league’s competitive nature when he first joined UCF in late 2017. He said he took note of the league before accepting the position, citing the history of non-conference wins by AAC teams.
The remaining six games on UCF’s schedule will ultimately decide whether the team has a chance to defend their AAC crown for a third year in a row. With only conference opponents slated for the rest of the regular season, the Knights will have to embrace perfection from this point forward to earn back dominance in the league.