MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - The Memphis Tigers will play the University of Central Florida Knights for the fourth time in two seasons in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Saturday.
The Tigers (8-4, 5-3 AAC) beat the Houston Cougars to clinch the AAC West Division title last Friday, setting up a rematch of last year’s conference title game, against the Knights (11-0, 8-0 AAC), who beat South Florida last week to extend their nation’s best win streak to 24 games.
UCF’s victory was spoiled however, after starting quarterback McKenzie Milton suffered a gruesome season ending leg injury. The Knights will start redshirt freshman Darriel Mack Jr. against the Tigers.
UCF leads the series with an all time record of 12-1. The Knights have won 12 straight over the Tigers dating back to 2005, and last beat the Tigers on October 13, in a 31-30 game that went down to the wire.
Memphis head football coach Mike Norvell talked about the matchup at his weekly press conference on Monday:
Opening statement..."To wrap up last week, I’m so very proud of our football team. To come out and do the things necessary throughout that game and to win going away, it was an impressive sight to see. Our football team throughout the contest was physical and played with relentless effort. It was an emotional game. I thought we actually came out in the beginning probably a little too hyped up. We had to settle down and control things we could control. I thought they responded at a very high level. We faced some adversity throughout the first half. We turned the ball over a couple times. Our guys never wavered. We went into halftime and made a couple of adjustments. I thought our defense throughout the game did an outstanding job. They created pressure. We did a nice job stopping the run game and forced them to be one-dimensional. Offensively, we showed great balance. We ran for 130 in the first half but then to come out in the second half and take the game over - we had some explosive plays in the fourth quarter and ended the game by continuing drives. It was a great day. To win the West Division in back-to-back years speaks volumes of our program and where we are and where we believe we can continue to grow. It sets up for this week. It’s one game, one opportunity for The American championship. Our guys are excited. We’re grateful to be a part of this game. We’re playing a wonderful opponent, a Top 10 UCF team that we’ve become very accustomed to. We’re playing them for the fourth time in two years. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen two opponents play four times in two seasons. We’re familiar with their personnel. It’s the second time we get to go against this coaching staff and the schemes the implement. They are very well coached. They are playing at a high level and you can see the confidence in their guys as they have grown throughout this year. Defensively, they are coming off back-to-back performances where they have given up 13 points or less against good offenses. They are playing with a bunch of confidence.I would also like to take a moment and say our thoughts and prayers are with McKenzie Milton. He’s one of the greatest competitors I’ve had the opportunity to coach against, and even beyond that, he’s one of the best young men I’ve gotten the chance to meet. His injury this past week is so very sad and what that means in him not getting the opportunity to be a part of this game. He’s a special young man. We hope him a speedy recovery. We know this is a great football team we are playing. You look at (Darriel) Mack the quarterback that came in; he started a game this season so he has experience. In both contests against ECU and against USF, he’s led them to victories. Both times they scored over 35 points and held the opponents to just 10. This is a team that will rally behind him. They have exceptional playmakers at every phase. It’s going to take our best effort. Our guys are excited about the opportunity to play this game and go into an adverse atmosphere. It’s going to be a heck of a matchup."
On difference in the team since Tulane setback..."We’ve grown throughout the season and spent a long time focusing on ourselves. There have been moments we haven’t played to the best of our ability. There were times we got knocked down. I’m grateful for every experience we’ve had this year. It has helped build us into who we are right now. We’re playing a good brand of football. I’m proud of what I see in our team and the belief they have shown in their coaches and the fundamentals we ask them to perform. We talk a lot about the culture we have established. It’s a hard-earned culture. We challenge our guys in every aspect - what they are doing off the field, what they are doing on the field, how we are preparing. To see them achieve success by believing in what we do, I’m proud to be their coach and I’m proud to see their response. I know we are going to go out there and put our best foot forward against UCF this week. I think some of the experiences we’ve faced have helped better prepare us for this opportunity than if we didn’t go through them."
On preparing for UCF having come up short in last four head-to-head games..."This is a great team we’re playing. Every opportunity they have had the last two years they have had success. We’ve competed well against them, but we have also made mistakes late in games that cost us. They made plays late in games that helped them to victory. We have a great sense of their personnel. It’s only the second time going against this coaching staff. There will be new wrinkles we will see, so that’s a little bit of a difference. We know they are talented. You can see the confidence growing in their football team much like you can see the confidence growing in our football team as the season has progressed. I think they are playing their best football and we are playing our best football. That’s what you want in a championship game. We have the ultimate respect for their staff and their players. We know this is going to be a wonderful atmosphere at their home stadium. This is the game you want to play in. We’re fired up about it."
On UCF quarterback Darriel Mack Jr...."He’s definitely a dual-threat, much like McKenzie (Milton). He can throw the ball far and it definitely jumps out of his hand. He may lack the experience being out there, but in essentially two games he’s played, you can see he lets the game come to him. They do a lot of different things offensively to put him in a good position. Very similar to us, they want to showcase their skill players. They do a great job on the offensive line. They are well coached. They are going to compete physically. When you have the weapons they have, it’s going to take our best effort. They are averaging about 260 yards per game rushing. It’s two similar philosophies in what they want to do with both football teams. It’s going to be a heck of a matchup with it."
On quarterback Brady White in the last two games..."Brady has done a really nice job. He’s had a couple plays he’d like to have back with the turnovers. On the first one of the game (against Houston), there was a combination of two things and perhaps why they shouldn’t have happened. One was on him and one was on a receiver. Those are things we need to make sure get cleaned up. But Brady has meant everything to this team this year. Some of the things he has done and decisions he makes pre-snap and post-snap are incredible. He has played at a very high level. He has been consistent in a sense of what he has done throwing the football. The last couple of weeks we had some drops show up that we’ve got to eliminate to make sure we continue to be consistent moving the chains. I’m pleased with what he has done. We need to clean up some decisions on the turnovers, but he has played at a high level."
On quarterback Brady White developing a leadership role..."It’s something our guys have watched develop throughout practice, and that started back in the spring. Each week you can see guys respond more and more. We want to be an action-based program. If you want to be a leader on this team, don’t go out there and give a speech, go out there and prove it with your actions every single day. Brady has done that and how he prepares. Our guys have great confidence that when he takes the field he knows what we want to do as much as anyone on our team. He puts in extra work on his own to get to that point. When he goes out and works his tail off at practice, guys rally behind that. It’s been fun to see. Much like a lot of guys on our team, it’s a young football team when it comes to guys establish themselves as leaders. I think that’s one of the things that has changed and helped us get where we are now. We’ve seen guys take that step, and that’s helped us in those moments where we needed a play or needed someone to help correct something."
On difference in defense during midseason setbacks to four-game win streak..."Looking back at the season, obviously Tulane was a rough game for everyone on our team. We had five defensive starters out. That was a learning experience for our depth. We had some guys that were thrust in there. I thought the first matchup against UCF we gave up some explosive plays that you can’t give up against a really good football team. We were in position to make but didn’t capitalize. Missouri was a game we just didn’t play very well. Missouri and ECU, looking at that there were a couple rough spots. Our guys continued to respond to the challenges. We were playing and preparing with more of a relentless spirit. If you watch the games over the last four weeks, you see 11 hats flying to the ball. That’s what you want. We’ve created a great pass rush. We have elevated ourselves there and getting to the quarterback. We are one of the nation’s leaders in sacking the quarterback. Our guys are competing. I think we’re in the top three in the conference in defense, which is the best we’ve had since I’ve been here. It’s getting to the standard of what we want it to be with a young group. We’re excited with what the future holds for them. We know we have to play at an elite level with a great offense."
On increasing television audience for conference games... “It shows excitement for The American. It shows the excitement for these two football programs. People want to tune in to see good football. We take it as a great compliment that people are excited to see us play. Hopefully we can go out there and live up to our end of the bargain. It’s a fun conference to be a part of. In these games, you’re going to get 60-minute fights, and some go longer than that. It’s going to be a great game to be a part of. It’s going to have wonderful numbers when it comes to viewership, and that helps everyone involved. It means more recruits and more fans get to watch our team play. We have another opportunity to represent our great city and what we do.”