Dylan Gabriel fired four touchdown passes and Dyllon Lester preserved the victory with a late interception as the UCF Knights overcame a 21-0 deficit to defeat Boise State, 36-31, in the first game of the Gus Malzahn era.
The 21-point comeback tied the school record for the biggest comeback in Knights’ history.
“It’s a tough thing to do, go down 21-0 to a good opponent,” Malzahn said after the game. “We fought back, kept believing, and kept making plays. The main thing was, there was no panic. Overall, this was a really quality win as we move forward with the season.”
To say the least, it was an inauspicious start for the Knights.
UCF appeared headed for an early lead – getting a defensive stop off the opening kickoff and then moving 62 yards on their first possession – only to see Bronco defensive back Tyric LeBeauf step in front of a Gabriel pass at the goal line and return it 100-yards for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead for Boise State.
Boise would up the lead to 14-0, as quarterback Hank Bachmaier led a 10-play, 78-yard drive capped by a 3-yard touchdown run by Andy Van Buren at the 4:00 mark of the first quarter. The drive was aided by several missed tackles by UCF and a nifty 12-yard pass by Bachmaier, who scrambled to avoid a sack on a third and 10 play. On Boise State’s next possession, a touchdown pass from Bachmaier to Khalil Shakir upped the lead to 21-0.
The Knights’ offense would finally show some signs of life in the second quarter, as Gabriel led a 4-play, 75-yard drive took just 1:27 off the clock and ended in a 23-yard touchdown pass from Gabriel to Alec Holler. The touchdown was aided by a 30-yard run by Isaiah Bowser and a 22-yard scramble by Gabriel.
But UCF’s comeback did not start in earnest until the final drive of the first half.
With UCF facing a fourth and three on the Boise 46 with 3:13 remaining, Malzahn elected to punt the ball back to Boise. The strategy worked, as the defense held the Broncos to a three-and-out and got the ball back on their own 26 with a 1:19 remaining.
From there, Gabriel directed a stunningly efficient drive, which included completions of 31 yards to Ryan O’Keefe and 28 yards to Jaylon Robinson. With time running out, Gabriel would then hit Titus Mokiao-Atimalala in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown with six seconds left to cut the lead to 24-14 at the half.
After the second-half kickoff, Gabriel quickly moved the Knights downfield, capping off another quick touchdown drive with an 11-yard scoring strike to Brandon Johnson. The key play of the drive was a sensation grab by Robinson that went for 47 yards.
One possession later, UCF would grab the lead with another long drive. This time it was Gabriel’s fourth touchdown pass of the game, a 21-yard scoring strike to Robinson that gave the Knights their first lead of the game at the 0:56 mark of the third quarter, 28-24.
Momentum would stay with UCF early in the fourth quarter.
Punter Joel Vazquez, who was averaging a gaudy 53 yards per punt in the game, saw the first snap of the fourth quarter sail over his head and through the end zone for a Knights’ safety and a 30-24 lead.
Boise State would jump back in the lead midway through the fourth quarter, as Gabriel was picked off by LeBeauf for a second time. This interception was returned to the Knights 31 and two plays later Shakir scored his second touchdown on a 7-yard screen pass and Boise was back in front, 31-30.
But UCF would not be denied in Malzahn’s debut.
Bowser would then put the Knights back on top at 36-31, with an eight-yard touchdown run on a third and goal play. A two-point conversion failed when the Knights were called for a false start forcing them to try from the eight-yard line. Gabriel was not only stopped short of the goal line on a scramble but the junior was hit hard on the play and had to be helped off the field.
Following Lester’s interception, the Knights had a chance to run out the clock with two first downs but could manage only one and had to punt back to Boise State with 15 seconds remaining. Bachmaier would complete a pass to midfield stopping the clock with one second left, but he was hit by Kalia Davis on a “hail mary” attempt on the game’s final play and the ball fell to the ground well short of the UCF end zone.
For the game, Knights fans were given a good dose of the balanced attack Malzahn said he would strive for. UCF gained a total 573 yards, 255 yards rushing and 318 yards passing. Gabriel completed 25 of 37 passes but had the two interceptions to go with the four touchdown passes. Robinson had a big night offensively, catching six balls for 140 yards; while Bowser had 170 yards rushing on 32 carries.
The Knights return to action a week from Saturday, hosting Bethune-Cookman at the Bounce House at 6:30 p.m.