The 22nd-ranked UCF football team would not be denied on Saturday, as the Knights earned a 46-39 victory against South Florida at Raymond James Stadium to clinch a spot in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) Championship game next weekend.
Following a great first half in which UCF led 28-7 at the break, South Florida countered in the second half and took the lead 39-38 in the fourth quarter, but the Knights had an answer. With the drive starting on the 18-yard line, UCF needed to move the ball the length of the field and did just that.
Wide receiver Javon Baker made a great catch on a deep pass down the middle for a 41-yard gain and a few plays later tight end Alec Holler made a fantastic one-handed grab in the endzone to give UCF a 47-49 lead after the two-point conversion.
“I’m so proud of our team, it’s hard to win in college football rivalry games. There’s nothing like it and we got their best,” said UCF head coach Gus Malzahn. “We were in control of the game in the first half, but we had three turnovers in the second half. Our guys just kept fighting and we found a way to win.”
With the win, UCF finishes the regular season with a 9-3 overall record and a 6-2 mark in AAC play. The Knights won the head-to-head tiebreaker with Cincinnati and will play in the AAC Championship game for the third time. UCF also appeared in the game in 2017 when the squad defeated Memphis 62-55 and 2018 when the Knights took down Memphis 56-41.
After winning the toss and electing to receive the opening kick, UCF put together a six-play, 75-yard drive to score on its first possession and take a 7-0 lead. Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee kept the read option and raced 64 yards down the sideline for his 10th rushing touchdown of the season, tying Jeff Godfrey for the second most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a single season.
UCF made it a 14-0 advantage later in the first quarter, as running back RJ Harvey scored on a three-yard rush as the Knights moved the ball 85 yards on 13 plays in 5:35.
Plumlee scored for the second time on the day with 11:25 remaining the second quarter with a 20-yard rush and he found Ryan O’Keefe for a touchdown pass to push the UCF lead to 28-0. South Florida scored with 40 seconds left in the first half on a two-yard grab from Sean Atkins.
At halftime, UCF owned 318 yards of total offense with 245 rushing yards, while the Knights limited the Bulls to 200 overall yards and forced a pair of South Florida turnovers.
The Bulls came out on fire in the third quarter and scored 22 points in the period, more than UCF had allowed in a second half all season. Brian Battie’s 14-yard rushing touchdown nearly knotted the score at 31-31, but the two-point conversion attempt was no good as the Knights held the lead 31-29 heading to the fourth quarter.
Kobe Hudson reeled in a four-yard touchdown pass from Mikey Keene, who replaced Plumlee in the second half after Plumlee was removed from the game with an injury. Hudson’s fifth touchdown grab of the season stretched the UCF lead to 38-29. A South Florida field goal and touchdown run from Byrum Brown gave the Bulls their first lead of the night at 39-38 with 7:02 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Knights fumbled on their next drive, turning the ball back over to South Florida but the UCF defense came up big with a three-and-out to get the ball back to the Knights offense.
After an incompletion on first down, Keene connected with Isaiah Bowser for a 12-yard completion before the big play down the middle of the field to Baker for 41 yards, which moved the ball to the USF 29-yard line. Following a couple positive runs, Keene threw a perfect pass to Holler on his outside shoulder and Holler extended his right arm in the air to make a one-handed grab while falling into the end zone for the score.
“That last drive was a classic drive and Mikey, he answered the bell again. Now, we play in the championship game and I’m just so proud of our team. Looking around college football, it’s hard to win, especially on the road,” Malzahn added.
UCF won its sixth straight against South Florida and its 13th consecutive win against teams from the state of Florida.
The Knights will return to action in the AAC Championship against No. 19 Tulane next Saturday. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. ET from Yulman Stadium in New Orleans and the game will be broadcast live on ABC.
SOURCE: UCFKNIGHTS.com, UCF Knights