The UCF Knights are hoping they’ve found a miniature version of Marcus Mariota in true freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton.
Besides sharing initials and playing the same position, Mariota and Milton are Hawaii natives, and they have tie-ins with the Oregon Ducks. Mariota played there, and Milton is being coached by ex-Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost.
Milton, who is just 18, is a long way from having the career of the 6-4 Mariota, the first Hawaiian to win the Heisman Trophy and a starter for the Tennessee Titans.
But Milton has earned the attention and respect of the host FIU Panthers, who will try to stop him on Saturday night. Kickoff is at 7 as FIU (0-3) looks to knock off UCF (1-2) for the second year in a row.
“He’s fast, and he’s quick,” FIU defensive coordinator Ron Cooper said of Milton, who has a swagger to his game along with a quick release and some zip on his passes. “He can play. He can throw the ball, and when it’s not open he can get out of it with his feet.
“We have to play good coverage, and we have to keep him contained and get pressure on him.”
Milton made his debut last week against Maryland when previous starter Justin Holman sustained an apparent hamstring injury, and he put up solid numbers. Milton completed 21 of 36 passes for 260 yards and one touchdown. He had one interception but that was on a tipped pass.
He also ran for 62 yards and one touchdown but took 55 yards in losses on sacks and scrambles. Milton also fumbled four times.
Cooper would love to see more turnovers on Saturday, but he knows that’s not a given.
“They have good coaches over there,” Cooper said of UCF. “They are going to get that corrected. There’s no doubt they’re emphasizing that this week. We have to play hard and force turnovers.”
FIU’s defense also has to deal with a familiar face in Jawon Hamilton, a former South Dade High running back who was recruited by the Panthers.
Hamilton rushed for 1,259 yards, 16 touchdowns and had a 9.6 yards-per-carry average last season at South Dade. This year, he leads UCF with 157 rushing yards, averaging 4.1 per carry, but has yet to score.
UCF, with a first-year coach (Frost), and four sophomores and three freshmen starting on offense, is trying to build something along the lines of the Oregon juggernaut in the Mariota days. Frost, in essence, wants to turn UCF into Oregon East.
Meanwhile, FIU is desperate for a win. The Panthers want to keep that up-tempo UCF offense off the field as much as possible.
One way to do that is to continue to hand the ball off to 5-10, 190-pound junior running back Alex Gardner, who has rushed for 262 yards and a 5.3 average this season.
Gardner, who has also scored a rushing touchdown in four consecutive games dating to last season, said his unit’s objective is clear.
“On offense, we have been leaving the defense on the field too much,” Gardner said. “We have to sustain drives, and we have to get touchdowns. We’re going to do a better job.”
Gardner, who will be making his 15th consecutive start, has 1,604 career rushing yards to go with 13 rushing touchdowns. He also has 79 career catches for 595 yards and one touchdown.
“It doesn’t matter,” Gardner said when asked about his personal statistics. “We’re losing, and winning is everything. I wouldn’t care if I got 10 carries for [only] seven yards as long as we got the win.”