This was a true clash of the titans. The War on I-4 was everything we could have wanted and more. It was the best game of college football played this year. The undefeated UCF Knights and the one loss USF Bulls came into this game with everything on the line. A win meant the divisional title, playing in the American Athletic Conference championship game, and (with a win in the championship game) a chance to play in a New Year’s Six bowl.
The Knights claimed the 49-42 win in the best game ever played in this rivalry. They are now the only team in history to go from winless to an undefeated regular season in two years.
It was a back-and-forth game with thrilling closing minutes. Trailing for the first time this year in the fourth quarter, McKenzie Milton hit Dredrick Snelson for a touchdown pass and took a one point lead at 35-34. On the Knights' next drive, Otis Anderson took a pass 23 yards into the end zone and the Knights went up by eight.
USF quarterback Quinton Flowers responded. As he did for essentially the entire game, Flowers brutalized the UCF secondary and found the open man on an 83 yard touchdown pass to Darnel Salmon. With a successful two point conversion (again, to a wide open target), USF knotted the score at 42 with 1:41 seconds to play.
And that’s when Mike Hughes worked his magic. Hughes took the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. Backup defensive back Richie Grant sealed the game soon after for the Knights, forcing a fumble by USF’s Mitch Wilcox that senior linebacker Chequan Burkett fell on.
The kickoff return wasn’t even Hughes’s first clutch play of the game. At the close of the first half, he ended a threatening USF drive with a pick. And to think – Hughes is a transfer who had been on the team for a mere two weeks before the season started. His second return for a touchdown could not have come at a better time.
As we projected, Flowers was an x factor. He was undeniably amazing. He outgained the entire UCF offense (533 total yards) with 605 of his own. 503 of them came in the passing game. 102 of them came via his legs. He accounted for five touchdowns. Flowers’s performance made him the most productive player on offense in USF history by a substantial margin.
He also celebrated a touchdown by pantomiming an act of self-intimancy. Onansim was a peculiarly fitting celebration for Flowers given his self-laudatory comment after the game: “You wanted to show your talent in front of the world, and that’s what I did tonight and what we did tonight.”
The schadenfreude was beyond compare. Recall that last year, USF had their best season in school history, winning eleven games. This year, the Bulls were anointed by pretty much everyone (including us) as the best team in the AAC. With Quinton Flowers and a stellar defense, the table was set for this season to be the new best year in program history. And yet it was the Knights who established themselves as the best team in the conference as the season wore on.
Separate and apart from what this win means for the Knights, it also deprives the Bulls of significant achievements. USF still has not won their division (any division, in any conference they’ve been in) and still are denied a chance to play for a conference championship. The spoiling of the Bull’s season makes this win all the more sweet.
The Bulls will likely now be relegated to the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla bowl or the Boca Raton bowl. Trying to put a good face on it, USF Head Coach Charlie Strong said postgame, “Well, we didn’t win a conference championship, but we ended up 9-2.” Asked if he was pleased with that, he answered, “Yes.” In the pantheon of bad Charlie Strong postgame comments, it’s up there in terms of the most awkward. The statement rivals his “I still say the best football team lost that game,” when UCF upset his top ten Louisville team in 2013.
The Knights will play Memphis next week in the AAC Championship game. The two teams met early in the season when the Knights crushed Memphis 40-13 (presciently, our recap of that game noted that UCF had staked its claim to AAC dominance).
We close with the highlights. If you’re like us, you’ll spend tonight watching them over and over: