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Owls preparing to face two Central Florida quarterbacks

With UCF starter McKenzie Milton a game-time decision because of injury, Temple also has prepared to face backup Darriel Mack Jr.

UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton (10) scores a touchdown in the first quarter of a game against Temple at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday, Nov 18, 2017. TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton (10) scores a touchdown in the first quarter of a game against Temple at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday, Nov 18, 2017. TIM TAI / Staff PhotographerRead moreTim Tai

Temple will play at Central Florida on Thursday night with first place on the line in the American Athletic Conference's East Division.

But will it be the Central Florida team that has McKenzie Milton, who was eighth in last year's Heisman Trophy voting, at quarterback? Or the one with redshirt freshman Darriel Mack at the helm?

Milton suffered an undisclosed injury that kept him out of the Knights' most recent game, a 37-10 win at East Carolina on Oct. 20. Josh Heupel, coach of No. 9 UCF (7-0, 4-0 AAC), said earlier this week that Milton will be a game-time decision against the Owls (5-3, 4-0). If Milton can't go, Mack would earn his second straight start.

The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Milton moves around well in the pocket and can hurt teams with his running ability but destroy them with the pass. This year, he has completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 1,797 yards and 16 touchdowns, with four interceptions. He has rushed for 204 yards (4.3 avg.) and six touchdowns.

Mack is known much more for his running ability. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, he is both quick and powerful. Against ECU, he rushed for 120 yards on 22 carries and a score. He also completed 12 of 20 throws for 69 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions.

"He is a big guy, he can run, so that means we have to keep him in the pocket and staying in our rushing lanes," Temple defensive tackle Michael Dogbe said.

Temple, which like UCF had a bye last week, did well in its previous game against a redshirt freshman quarterback who can run: Cincinnati's 6-4, 212-pound Desmond Ridder. In the Owls' 24-17 overtime win over the previously unbeaten Bearcats, Ridder rushed for just 9 yards on 16 carries and completed 14 of 33 passes for 111 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception.

The Owls also played one of their best defensive games of the season against Maryland, which had two running quarterbacks. Temple won, 35-14, and the defense didn't allow a point.

So Temple should be well-prepared if Mack is called.

Defending Milton is a different story. Last year when UCF beat Temple, 45-19 at Lincoln Financial Field, he completed 16 of 23 for 208 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. Milton also rushed for 23 yards and a touchdown.

"He is a dynamic player, a special player who helps that offense run smoothly," Temple coach Geoff Collins said. "Our guys have to get after him."

Another key to the game will be the play of Temple redshirt sophomore Anthony Russo. The Owls are 5-1 since he took over at quarterback.

Russo has been prone to turnovers, with 10 interceptions and nine touchdown passes. And he will be facing a UCF defense that is third nationally in turnover margin (1.86). Against Cincinnati, Temple overcame three Russo interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter. Russo also threw a touchdown pass to tie the score with 49 seconds left in regulation and then connected with Isaiah Wright on a 25-yard score in overtime.

Temple likely will need an almost mistake-free game by Russo to keep up with a UCF team that has a 20-game win streak, longest in the nation. And on the other end, the Owls will have to contain whichever quarterback Central Florida unleashes on them.

Temple at Central Florida

When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Spectrum Stadium, Orlando, Fla.

Record: Temple, 5-3, 4-0 American Athletic Conference; UCF, 7-0, 4-0.

TV/Radio: ESPN/97.5 The Fanatic.

Coaches: Temple, Geoff Collins (second season, 12-9); UCF, Josh Heupel (first season, 7-0).

Series history: UCF leads, 3-2, after last year's 45-19 win at Lincoln Financial Field.

Three things to watch

– While so much centers on whether UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton will play, a key development for Temple will be whether running back Ryquell Armstead plays. Armstead has missed the last two games because of an ankle injury. Both Armstead and Milton had the benefit of a bye last week, and both are listed as game-time decisions by their coaches. Armstead is so important to Temple because it needs to run the ball to control the clock and keep the explosive UCF offense off the field. UCF is fifth in the nation in scoring, averaging 44.4 points. If Armstead can't go, running back Jager Gardner will likely have a key role.

– UCF's defense is fast and tough. The Knights are 15th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 18.1 points per game. As Temple running back Rob Ritrovato said, "they have a lot of Florida kids who can really run." Temple has thrown 14 interceptions this year, and the Owls have to watch out for a ball-hawking defense, led by sophomore free safety Richie Grant. The 6-0, 194-pound Grant not only leads UCF with three interceptions, but he also has a team-high 58 tackles.

– Temple's offensive line, after a rough start in the opening two losses, has been playing at an extremely high level. Led by redshirt sophomore center Matt Hennessy, who has yet to allow a quarterback pressure, the line has surrendered just eight sacks this season. Temple allowed none in its most recent game, a 24-17 overtime win over Cincinnati. The rest of the starting line consists of tackles Adam Klein and Jaelin Robinson, and guards Vincent Picozzi and Jovahn Fair. UCF has 13 sacks this year. The Owls will have to win the battle of the trenches for a chance to upset UCF and end its 20-game winning streak.