It may not have been the biggest game in UCF history.
However, it was undoubtedly the most emotional game in the 40-year history of Knights football.
Early on, it looked as if the emotions of not having their leader would sink any chances of UCF’s 25th straight victory.
“We didn’t get off to the best start, but our guys are resilient. I’m proud of the way those guys bought in all year along and it paid off tonight,” said UCF head coach Josh Heupel
The Knights came into the American championship game with the 112th ranked run defense in all of FBS football.
The unit had their hands full trying to stop two of the conference’s most elite backs in Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. looked like men on a mission.
The duo combined for 188 yards in the first-quarter alone with Henderson scoring touchdowns of 62 and 12 yards before five minutes of game-time had even elapsed to put the visitor’s ahead 14-0.
After the injury to star quarterback Mckenzie Milton, the offense would be squarely in the hands of redshirt freshman Darriel Mack Jr.
Early on, it looked as if the stage might be too big Norfolk, Virginia native.
Mack fumbled three times in the first-half, both of which set the Memphis up with phenomenal field position.
The Tigers would score 10 points off of the two miscues.
Needing a response in the worst way, UCF turned to one of its biggest surprises of the season in Greg McCrae.
Following the second Henderson touchdown, McCrae would cap off a seven-play, 65-yard UCF drive with a 14-yard touchdown run to make the score 14-7 Tigers. The Tigers however would be quick to respond.
Taylor Jr. raced through the Knights’ defense for a 70-yard score to put Memphis back ahead by two possessions.
“We did a lot of good things early on, our biggest issue was we couldn’t do enough of them to win,” said Memphis head coach Mike Norvell.
After a Riley Patterson 36-yard field goal ended the opening quarter with the Tigers ahead 24-7, Mack would settle in at quarterback for the Knights.
He used his legs to engineer a 13-play, 78-yard drive, that ended when he leaped at the two-yard line and in an effort to extend the ball over the goal line fumbled for the third time of the half.
However, the ball was corralled in the endzone by sixth-year senior Michael Colubiale to make the game 24-14.
While the UCF offense is known for being fast, Memphis had a lightning quick response of their own. The Tigers would score in 28 seconds, as Henderson bolted for an 82-yard touchdown run.
UCF’s fast-paced offense made its first appearance, as they responded by going 94 yard in four plays. Josh Heupel went deep into the playbook dialing up a jump-pass that Mack executed to perfection. He found reserve tight end Jake Hescock to bring UCF within 10 at 31-21.
Another miscue would find UCF on the ensuing drive.
After forcing a punt, dynamic returner Otis Anderson muffed the punt inside of UCF territory.
After getting inside the redzone, Henderson lined up in the wildcat and threw a four-yard score to Sean Dykes to put Memphis ahead 38-21 at the half. UCF’s 24-game win streak has never looked as in jeopardy as it did entering the second-half.
Henderson would finish the day with 16 carries for 210 yards.
With the season on the brink, the Knights came out firing in the second half.
Anderson would redeem his earlier mistake, hauling in a 54-yard strike from Mack to bring UCF back within 10. After a three and out, Anderson showed why he’s such a dangerous returner, eluding the punt coverage for a 45-yard punt return giving the Knights great field position.
UCF would cash in, scoring on a four-yard Mack scamper to make the score 38-35 Memphis.
While the defense didn’t have it’s best performance, they showed up big-time on the following drive. Tiger quarterback Brady White led Memphis on an 11-play, 78-yard drive.
On third and two, White rolled to his right and found receiver Damonte Coxie in the corner of the South endzone.
However, Coxie couldn’t complete the catch going to the ground and Tiger head coach Mike Norvell would choose to take the three points and put Memphis ahead by six.
Randy Shannon’s defense held Darrell Henderson to six carries for three yards in the second-half.
“We made the necessary adjustments and guys played more fundamentally sound football,” said Heupel.
The next drive saw the Knights take their first lead of the game. Mack drove the offense 76 yards and would score his second rushing touchdown of the game from two yards out to make the game 42-41.
With momentum clearly in the Knights’ favor, Memphis drove into field-goal range. Reliable kicker Riley Patterson hit 81 percent of his kicks during the season, but his 17th attempt from 46 yards out would sail wide right.
Reminiscent of his quarterback-mate in Milton, Mack would use his legs to spur a scoring drive as UCF went 71 yards on eight plays and Mack made his third trip to the endzone to put UCF ahead 49-41.
Mack ended the day with 348 yards passing, 59 yards on the ground and four rushing scores and was named Most Outstanding Player of the championship game as he leads the Knights to their second consecutive New Year’s six bowl appearance.