ATLANTA — In a game pitting two of the nation’s top offenses, No.12 UCF overcame a rough first half offensively and capped off an undefeated season by defeating No.7 Auburn 34-27 in the 50th annual Chick-fil-a Peach Bowl Monday afternoon inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
UCF was led by quarterback McKenzie Milton, who struggled badly finding his receivers in the first half, going 3-for-17 for 30 yards. The sophomore signal caller would settle down and find his stride, finishing 16-for-35 for 242 yards and two touchdowns in the deciding half of play. Junior wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith was Milton’s favorite target on the afternoon, hauling in a team-high five catches for 89 yards. Milton also led the team in rushing, carrying the ball 13 times for 122 yards and a touchdown. On the defensive side, the team was anchored by AAC Defensive Player of the Year Shaquem Griffin, who led the team with 12 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss.
Auburn was led by quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who had an opposite story compared to Milton. Stidham was 16-for-21 for 140 yards in the first half and finished 28-for-43 for 331 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Stidham was sacked six times, a season-high for UCF. Running back Kerryon Johnson, the SEC Offensive Player of the Year, was held to 77 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries while Will Hastings caught six passes for 117 yards and a touchdown. Jordyn Peters had 8 tackles, including 0.5 tackles for loss on the defensive side of the ball for the Tigers.
UCF and Auburn began the game with each trading off opening drives that went nowhere. The Knights started to move the ball a little bit before a Milton fumble flipped the field to favor the Tigers. Jarrett Stidham then settled down and moved the Tigers 44 yards down to the UCF 8-yard line before the drive stalled. Danny Carlson kicked a 25-yard field goal to open the scoring.
UCF’s offense continued to stall as Auburn converted four out of six third down opportunities. A big sack by Trysten Hill forced Auburn to try a 53-yard field goal, which missed the mark. UCF’s running game started generating some positive yards as Milton pushed the Knights into scoring range. A 33-yard Matthew Wright field goal tied the game at 3-3 in the second quarter.
The first turnover for UCF occurred where Stidham fumbled a quarterback sneak to Tre Neal, who returned it all the way to the Auburn 19-yard line. Milton showed his agility, avoiding a sack, pulling the ball down, and scoring the first touchdown of the day from 18 yards away to give the Knights a 10-3 lead. UCF’s defense would give the offense excellent field position on their next drive, but Milton’s accuracy was still an issue, along with a key dropped pass by freshman receiver Marlon Williams.
Auburn resumed the quick tempo offense and after a questionable first down spot, moved the ball downfield before being pushed back and forcing Carlson to kick a 46-yard field goal to cut UCF’s lead to 10-6 late in the first half. UCF had just enough time to use a pair of Milton scrambles – along with a long completion to Tre’Quan Smith – to set Wright up to kick a 45-yard field goal to give UCF a 13-6 halftime lead.
Auburn started off the second half with a bang as Noah Igbinoghene had a 72-yard kick return to set up a 26-yard scoring strike from Stidham to Will Hastings to tie the game at 13-13. Milton’s throwing started settling down, but the Knights’ next drive stalled short of midfield. Auburn started exploiting holes in the UCF passing defense and moved the ball downfield methodically, capping it with a Johnson 4-yard touchdown run to give the Tigers a 20-13 lead midway in the third quarter. Milton started to settle down throwing the ball, going 4-for-4 with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Otis Anderson to tie the game at 20-20.
UCF’s defense found new energy and shut down the Tigers offense. On UCF’s next possession, Milton continued his hot streak, completing three of the next four passes, including an 8-yard strike to Dredrick Snelson to take a 27-20 lead. Auburn responded with a three and out. The UCF offense continued its onslaught with Milton running for 23 yards and tossing dime to Smith for 34 yards. The drive stalled and Wright’s 25-yard attempt was blocked.
Looking like momentum was shifting back to Auburn after a pass interference call on UCF, Chequan Burkett interception Stidham and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown to extend the lead to 34-20. Auburn turned around and scored a touchdown in only 93 seconds remaining to make it a one-score game 34-27. UCF tried to put the game out of reach, but a 38-yard Wright field goal was wide left and kept the Tigers in the game. The Tigers started at their own 21 with 2:18 left and proceeded to convert a fourth down and a third down to bring them just outside the redzone at the UCF 21-yard line before throwing an interception in the end zone to Antwan Collier to seal the win for the Knights.
McKenzie Milton and Shaquem Griffin were awarded the top offensive and defensive player trophies, respectively.
When asked if they felt they have a claim to the national championship, Griffin said, “There’s no more teams left for us to beat.” Milton built on his teammates’ reply by adding, “I said on the podium, ‘you can go ahead and cancel the playoffs; I’m not changing my mind.”
When asked the same question, Head Coach Scott Frost did not pull any punches.
“I was watching every week, the Committee sitting in a room and decide this two-loss team must be better than UCF because UCF is in the American. Or this three-loss team must be better than UCF. It looked like a conscious effort to me to make sure that they didn’t have a problem if they put us too high and a couple teams ahead of us lost. And oh no, now we have to put them in a playoff. But we just beat a team that beat two playoff teams and lost to another on by six points and we beat them by seven.”
UCF already was the first team in FBS history to go from 0-12 to 12-0 in a two-year span. UCF is also the first team since Florida State in 2014 to finish the season undefeated. The Knights capped it off with a bowl victory.
For Auburn, the Tigers fell short of being the sixth Tigers team in school history to finish with 11 wins or more. This is UCF’s second New Year’s Six bowl victory in school history, defeating No.6 Baylor in the 2014 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
Stay tuned to NGSC Sports for more bowl coverage.
I've been writing off and on since 2003, where I first wrote for Southern College Sports. After a hiatus, I returned in 2012 with The Sports Chronicles, a predecessor of NGSC Sports. After a brief stint with WBLZ in 2017, I came back to NGSC Sports and currently guest write on the site. Also, from 2015 to 2017, I helped run Off the Cuff, a sports program and blog with STLR Media.
I have done radio and podcasts dating back to 2006 with The Student of the Game, an NFL podcast. In 2012, I cohosted TSC Saturday Night on the Sports Chronicles and The OT With Andrew G on WTMY in Sarasota, FL. I later moved the OT to NGSC Sports until 2014 where I started The College Cram, also on NGSC Sports. After a brief hiatus, I returned to radio in 2015 with both Off the Cuff on STLR and The Mad Scientist Sports Lab on The Inscriber.