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VOL. 132 | NO. 235 | Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Memphis, UCF Familiar Foes Seeking AAC Title

By Don Wade

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The UCF-South Florida game on the day after Thanksgiving brought in some of the best television ratings for a Black Friday game in that slot in 15 years.

Running back Darrell Henderson (8) and quarterback Riley Ferguson celebrate after Memphis won the AAC West Division on Nov. 18. (Daily News File/Houston Cofield)

“It shows what I’ve been saying all along,” said American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco. “There’s real interest in this league nationally.”

Also locally. The day before the Memphis Tigers played their last game of the regular season, players were tuned in to that UCF-South Florida game. They knew they would get the winner in the league championship game at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 2.

UCF prevailed 49-42 and now the Tigers will get a rematch with the Knights. Their game during the regular season was postponed because of a hurricane and when they finally played on Sept. 30 in Orlando, the result was one-sided: UFC 40, Memphis 13.

So the Tigers watched the UCF-South Florida game with an eye toward adding to what is already a voluminous scouting report given that the Memphis staff is now preparing for UCF a third time because of the postponement. And once again, the game will be in Orlando.

“I watched UCF to get pointers on how to beat them,” said Tigers wideout Anthony Miller. “It’s gonna take all four quarters.”

Of course, head coach Mike Norvell already knew that.

“They’re strong in every area,” Norvell said of the Knights, 11-0 and 8-0 in the AAC. “We were embarrassed for how we played.”

No one more than quarterback Riley Ferguson. He threw three interceptions and lost a fumble.

So, yes, Ferguson was watching last Friday’s game, too, and reliving the first meeting with UCF.

“Over and over again,” he said.

Saturday’s championship game pits the two most prolific offenses in the country. UCF leads the nation with 48.3 points per game and Memphis is second at 46.3.

Since losing at UCF, Memphis (10-1, 7-1) has won seven straight. The Tigers scored fewer than 40 points just once during that span – a 30-27 victory over a then-ranked Navy team – and four times scored 56 or more points.

Ferguson and Miller are at the heart of that offense with the Tigers’ quarterback tied for sixth in the country with 32 touchdown passes and seventh nationally in passing yards per game with 318.2.

Miller is tied for second in the country with 14 receiving touchdowns and his 110.2 receiving yards per game ranks fifth.

“Those two are dynamic players, two of the best in the league and in the country,” said UCF coach Scott Frost.

Since the teams last met, it is the Memphis defense that perhaps has changed the most. The Tigers had many injuries on the defense and had inserted multiple young and inexperienced players in the defensive rotations. Now, those players have real game experience and Frost has noticed the Tigers’ defensive schemes changing as the season has gone on.

When the teams met the first time, “We were still trying to figure out who we were” on defense, Norvell said.

Now, new starters in the secondary this season such as cornerbacks TJ Carter and Tito Windham and safety Josh Perry have grown into their roles alongside senior free safety Jonathan Cook.

They will have the charge of trying to slow down UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton, who impressed Norvell with his playmaking under pressure against South Florida. Milton has thrown for 3,301 yards and 30 touchdowns, but also rushed for 429 yards and six TDs.

“That was a back-and-forth game and he made plays in a stressful situation,” said Norvell.

A stressful situation awaits the Memphis defense.

“We’ve been progressing every day,” Cook said of the two months since Memphis and UCF played. “We’re not the same team.”

Frost says the Knights will have a challenge in trying to beat Memphis a second time, but a rematch presents Memphis with the same need for adjustments.

“It’s always a challenge playing a team more than once because you’ve your shown cards,” Frost said. “But they’ve shown their cards, too. Both sides will know the other’s personnel real well.”

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