USF won the very first War on I-4 official trophy with a 48-31 beating of UCF. The rivalry series is now 2-2 in the AAC era, with the Bulls holding the overall 6-2 edge.
The Knights lost the way we worried they would. UCF continued to be dysfunctional on offense, losing turnovers and struggling badly on third down. The Knights entered the game converting only 31.1% of their third downs. Hard to believe, but UCF managed to lower their average by going 5 of 17.
The UCF defense was good for stretches but ended up mauled by Bulls RB Marlon Mack and QB Quinton Flowers who shredded the Knights on long runs. They ended up with 155 and 152 yards rushing respectively, and two touchdowns each.
In stark contrast, the UCF running game sputtered and was mostly contained by USF. The Knights ended with a mere 64 yards rushing on 35 attempts. The Knights did collectively pass for 338 yards and wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith had a spectacular 183 yards receiving and two touchdowns. /it wasn’t going to be enough.
But there was promise when the game began. UCF’s first drive was everything a Knights’ fan could want. Adrian Killins returned the game’s opening kickoff to put UCF in great field position. The Knights moved the ball smoothly and Smith set up the Jawon Hamilton touchdown with a long reception where he wove through the USF defense. The loss of starting right tackle Wyatt Miller to injury on the drive, however, would be felt.
Then followed a long stretch of more typical UCF dysfunction on offense, punctuated by murderous running by USF’s stellar RB Marlon Mack.
UCF fended off the Bulls on their first drive, but the Knights’ second drive was simply awful. We saw an incomplete pass on first down. Then no gain for Killins on the stretch play. And finally Milton sacked for a mammoth loss.
Mack promptly tore through the defense for a 43 yard touchdown run.
More offensive problems followed as the Knights failed to answer on its second three-and-out of three drives, which saw Milton throw a ball into the dirt and another too far out in front of the running back.
After a UCF stop, disaster struck the Knights on a Milton to Hamilton pitch for the second week in a row when Hamilton fumbled and USF defensive end Juwaun Brown scooped and scored.
The second quarter was utterly bizarre.
Brandon Behr hit a 33 yard field goal for the Bulls. And not long after, Marlon Mack hammered through the UCF defense on a 56 yard touchdown run in which he maybe broke a thousand tackles. I suppose that’s an exaggeration, but probably not by much.
And finally the UCF offense responded, adding their own play to the highlight reel. Wide receiver Tristan Payton threw a deep pass off the reverse which Tre’Quan Smith hauled in for the 72 yard touchdown. The Knights would try another deep pass by Payton off the reverse later in the game, though without success. Which was certainly understandable because the first one was magic:
UCF followed the trick play with an on-side kick attempt. It was called Knights ball on the field, but reversed following review for illegal touching by Tre Neal. Neal had just barely stepped out of bounds and ended up the first player to touch the ball.
The second half opened with disaster for UCF. On the second play from scrimmage, Flowers broke off a 62 yard touchdown run. But the third quarter proved more promising for the Knights, who had their first sustained drives since the opening one. Matthew Wright hit a 33 yard field goal and Taj McGowan added a short touchdown run.
The Bulls moved the ball well to open the fourth quarter, but the drive was stymied thanks to big tackle for loss by Shaquem Griffin and a stop on the run by Flowers. Behr’s field goal attempt went wide right, giving the Knights the ball with a little over ten minutes left in the game and down only by 7.
The Knights’ hope for a rally was promptly crushed. DE Mike Love tipped a Milton pass into the arms of LB Auggie Sanchez, whose interception return left the Bulls in excellent field position. Flowers immediately sliced through UCF for another touchdown run, the Bull’s tenth one play touchdown drive of the year.
Milton then tossed a weak pass intercepted by Nate Godwin. The Knights hopes could not survive the back to back picks thrown by Milton, and Behr tacked on another field goal to make it 41-24.
Though too late to make a difference, there were a couple moments left for Knights fans to appreciate. Strong-armed senior Justin Holman came in at quarterback in the game’s waning minutes. A few plays later, and he had thrown a laser to Tre’Quan Smith. Smith in turn stiff-armed a USF defender to the ground and added another impressive long touchdown catch to his stat line, this time of 41 yards. It was a nice moment for a senior quarterback who once looked like Blake Bortles’s heir before being derailed by injuries.
USF ultimately tacked on an unnecessary touchdown with the carry by D’Ernest Johnson when they could have taken a knee and ended the game. Not that we’re bitter – that’s great rivalry fodder and exactly what we hope the Knights would do in the same spot.
The Bulls hit ten wins for the first time in school history and will win the AAC East if the Temple chokes against a bad ECU team tonight.
UCF ends the regular season 6-6 and still has a chance for a winning record in Head Coach Scott Frost’s first season with the bowl game.