Orlando, FL — There is no wonder that Spectrum Stadium was a sellout for this American Athletic Conference (AAC) contest between the No.19 USF Bulls and the No. 12 UCF Knights.
So many intriguing storylines were leading into the event. The rivalry between the two schools. For the victor, a berth to represent the East Division in the AAC Championship Game. For the Knights, an opportunity to close out triumphantly what could arguably be their greatest football season of all time. And for the Bulls, a chance to spoil it.
Many in the mainstream sports media are already calling it the Game of the Year, and UCF took the prize home, 49-42.
On the opening drive, after a failed running attempt South Florida’s quarterback Quinton Flowers hit on two throws, the latter was a screen pass that turned into a 47-yard scoring scamper by wide receiver Tyre McCantis to hand the visitors a 7-0 lead. McCantis turned in a huge evening, posting a school record 227 yards on nine catches.
Central Florida answered back on a series that featured running back Adrian Killins gashing the Bulls line with several damaging gains. Just when it looked like UCF would have to settle for a field goal, USF was tagged with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for hitting Killins out of bounds. Two plays later Knights signal-caller McKenzie Milton sprinted in after a fake to tie it, 7-7.
South Florida’s second offensive effort carried to the opposing 30-yard line before UCF took the ball back by stuffing a 4th-and-one plunge. From there Milton assumed charge of a 70-yard effort to produce his team’s first lead of the game. Running back Otis Anderson kept things rolling with a big run, but it was wide receiver Dredrick Snelson who hauled in a 17-yard pass for six more points and a 14-7 Knights advantage.
Once Flowers had the football back, he uncorked another a pass longer than 20 yards to get his club into Knights territory. Heavy pressure from the UCF front forced the Bulls into a 4th down at the home 25-yard line. USF called on kicker Emilio Nadelman, winner of multiple AAC Special Teams Player of the Week awards and holder of the school record for field goals in a season, to convert a three-point attempt from 42 yards out. However, at this early crucial moment, the kick was shanked wide, leaving the Green and Gold with no points for the possession.
The undefeated home squad retook the field, unleashing a balanced attack that produced three first downs before another USF 15-yard penalty carried the Knights into the red zone. Taking the snap on the Bulls 17-yard line, Milton faked with Anderson to the left and ran to the right. Just as he was being taken down the quarterback pitched the ball to Killins, who jetted into the end zone and extended the home margin to 21-7. His six-pointer crowned the scatback’s evening effort of 15 carries for 83 yards.
The teams began the second quarter by trading punts before Flowers hit yet another strike of over 20 yards to lift his team into the red zone. On a second down from the 10, the visiting field general bashed his way across the goal line plane, but the play was nullified by a holding penalty. After an incomplete pass brought up 3rd down, wide receiver Temi Akala executed an exciting physical reception to help the Bulls close the gap, which remained at 21-13 after a missed PAT by Nadelman.
The Bulls found the end zone again before the half ended on another outstanding effort through the air. Tight end Mitchell Wilcox hauled in the toss to bring USF within a point at 21-20. The Green and Gold’s 6’4″, 245-pound target finished the game with three catches for 51 yards and this touchdown. The Knights, meanwhile, were held scoreless in the 2nd quarter, only their third period recorded without points during the 2017 season. A final shining moment that capped the first half for Central Florida was an interception by DB Mike Hughes, ending a Bulls possession and protecting his team’s narrow lead going into the locker room.
UCF ended its scoring drought early in the second half, cracking the red zone on a 12-yard third-down pass from Milton to wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith. The next play saw freshman wideout Gabriel Davis land six on the board, breaking the scoreless streak and pushing the Knights edge to 28-20.
Less than four minutes later, however, Bulls running back Darius Tice returned it to a one-point differential at 28-27, slashing into the end zone on a rushing TD. Matters were made even worse as Green and Gold linebacker Ronnie Hoggins picked off an errant Milton sling for the Bulls. Flowers was the focal point of the ensuing drive and capped off the effort himself with a 24-yard dash to paydirt, regaining USF’s lead for the second time in the game at 34-28.
The first seven minutes of the fourth quarter featured a battle where both sides tried to gain or hold the advantage. Urgency began to set in, and the Knights’ chances to capture the undefeated seas were looking grim. Then with 7:33 left in the match, Snelson rose to the occasion by hauling in Milton’s longest pass of the night, a 45-yard scoring missile for yet another lead change that put UCF back on top, 35-34. Snelson produced a solid showing for the contest with four catches, 71 yards, and two trips for six.
Five minutes later Anderson, at wide receiver instead of running back, sped into the house from 26 yards away, increasing the Black and Gold’s upper hand to 42-34. Anderson’s final stat line showed 10 runs for 30 yards, five receptions for 49 yards, and one touchdown. Instrumental in producing these points was wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith, who snagged no fewer than three crucial catches to move the chains and keep the foray alive. Smith finished the evening without points on the board, but with four key throws received for 71 yards.
At this point, it may have seemed like the Bulls were set out to pasture, but Flowers and his squad refused to be denied. He aired out an 83-yard bomb to wide receiver Darnell Salomon, bringing South Florida into close contention yet again. When they added a two-point conversion by running back D’Ernest Johnson, the lights on the scoreboard showed an amazing tie game, 42-42.
While Milton was poised to add to his performance of 29-44 (65%) for 373 yards, four touchdowns, and a pick, plus six more points on the ground with 11 rushes for 56 yards, it turned out to be defensive back and punt returner Mike Hughes who stole the spotlight. On the Bulls’ ensuing kickoff Hughes turned in the longest play of the night, racing an electrifying 93 yards to the promised land and hoisting the Knights in front again, 49-42, with 1:28 remaining. UCF head coach Scott Frost said of that mind-blowing play: “. . . I was thinking if he can get it out close to midfield, then we only need a first down or two to be in field goal range for Matt [Wright] and man, he hit that thing full speed . . .”.
The South Florida offense took the field one final time, but on Flowers’ last pass completion of the night, Wilcox fumbled the ball, allowing UCF to take the victory formation and kneel out the clock. Flowers finished with an incredible night of numbers, throwing 24-45 (53%) for 503 yards with four six-baggers and another on the ground, where he contributed 102 more yards on 20 carries. Identical to his opponent Milton, he threw a single interception.
While USF lost the turnover battle, more responsible was their overall lack of discipline which led to 102 yards in penalties and helped negate the Bulls’ physical advantage. Their receivers constantly bullied the Knights defense with a group featuring six players over 200 lbs., but that was ultimately rendered pointless by the final score.
This secures UCF’s spot as host of the AAC Conference Championship Game on December 2, when the winners in the West, the Memphis Tigers, come back to town for a rematch.