Five questions with Central Florida beat writer Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel

Maryland returns from its bye week Saturday against Central Florida, so The Baltimore Sun asked Chris Hays, who covers the Knights for the Orlando Sentinel, five questions about the matchup.

Considering how rusty teams seem to be sometimes in bowl games, do you expect Maryland could be at an advantage after Central Florida had to miss its last two scheduled games and hasn't played since Aug. 31 because of Hurricane Irma?

It would be difficult to argue that Maryland won’t have some sort of advantage on UCF, given the time the Knights had to sit idle during and in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. The Knights have talked a lot about “knocking off the rust,” during practices, but it won’t be too surprising if UCF comes out a bit sluggish. Sitting 23 days in between games has to have somewhat of an effect on a football team, and considering the Knights didn’t even practice for a full week gives further credence to that notion. The players and coaches have downplayed the layoff, but UCF will come into the game with only six practice days under its belt since resuming regular team activity [Sept. 14].

With the way the game ended last season in Orlando, when Maryland took possession and scored after a controversial fumble call, do you think the Knights are looking at this as sort of a payback game?

There is no doubt that UCF players are looking for revenge from last season and many of them have said it directly this week. The Knights have been using phrases like “shock the world” in reference to the game. They’ve said they figure no one expects them to win and they want to prove those doubters wrong. Offensive lineman Jordan Johnson summed it up, saying, “We come into this game angry at them from last year because they got us in double overtime. I remember the feeling that I had after that game more than anything. I just felt sick to my stomach.”

How much better is sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton than he was last year when he made his first college start against the Terps, or is he still considered a bit of a gunslinger; a high-risk, high-reward kind of guy?

Milton himself acknowledges the “gunslinger” label he earned last year, as do his coaches. He said he learned a lot from his freshman season and he showed more of a pocket presence in the opener against FIU. What head coach Scott Frost said he believes has been his quarterback’s biggest improvement is understanding the importance of not turning the ball over, something he did plenty of last season, including four times against Maryland. He did throw an interception against FIU, but he also threw for 360 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll have a bigger test against Maryland’s secondary and it will be interesting to see how he handles it. Milton has better weapons around him this season, so he should be more at ease running the offense.

Given the way last season ended with three straight double-digit defeats for a 6-7 record, is the fan base as excited about second-year coach Scott Frost as it was when he was hired?

The honeymoon is not over just yet with the Scott Frost era. The fans are still quite enamored with the second-year coach, but they also are expecting a far better product this season. Many fans were OK with last season’s 6-7 effort after seeing the Knights go 0-12 in 2015, but that way of thinking did not sit well with Frost. Fans didn’t exactly pack the house in the opener – announced crowd was 38,063 at 46,300-seat Spectrum Stadium – but it was a night game with an early start time (6 p.m.), so that didn’t help. Knights fans still have not placed judgment on the new regime and seem to be in a wait-and-see mode.

Since the only competition to date has been Florida International, is it difficult to see what kind of improvements have been made since last season?

For the most part, the jury is still out on this UCF squad since FIU didn’t put up much of a fight. On offense, improvement was obvious with Milton’s decision making and his ability to hit receivers, the receiving corps showed its depth – 13 different receivers caught balls in the blowout – and the offensive line is better, but the coaches were somewhat displeased with the running game. Jawon Hamilton led all ball carriers with just 56 yards and UCF will be looking for more production this week. Defensively, the secondary, which lost all four starters from last year, was very impressive and the addition of Juco All-American Mike Hughes, who also returns punts, has added athleticism and experience. The defensive front is UCF’s foundation, and it will be tested against the Terps running backs this week.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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