ORLANDO — A significant concern of American Athletic Conference brass was whether the short-term futures of both coaches — especially UCF’s — would overshadow the action of Saturday’s league title game.
That worry disappeared along with both defenses on a warm, wild afternoon at Spectrum Stadium. In the second ebb-and-flow extravaganza staged in this venue in nine days, secondaries, school records and story lines were upended with equal fury.
By day’s end, No. 12 UCF had eked out a 62-55 overtime triumph against No. 16 Memphis in the highest-scoring conference championship game in Division I-A history.
"At the end of the day, they were able to make one more play than we did," Memphis coach Mike Norvell said. "What a game."
In other news, Knights coach Scott Frost is headed to Nebraska. Around dusk, the school confirmed Frost, a former Cornhuskers quarterback who led them to the 1997 national title, would return to his native state. Offensive coordinator Troy Walters will serve as UCF’s interim coach.
"I’d say the pull of the alma mater is what won the day," White said at an early-evening news conference.
A couple of hours earlier, Frost’s team completed one of the most staggering turnarounds in recent college football memory. UCF, coming off an 0-12 season when Frost was hired on Dec. 1, 2015, improved to 12-0 Saturday and appears headed to the Peach Bowl as the highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion.
"I’ve said it before, what these guys have done, it’s not just improbable it’s impossible, in two years to get where they are," he said. "It’s a special group."
Saturday, it also had to be a resilient one.
Before an announced crowd of 41,433, the Knights and Tigers (10-2) combined for 1,479 yards, four lead changes and 23 plays of at least 20 yards.
Memphis rallied from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit, tying the score at 48-all on sophomore speedster Tony Pollard’s 66-yard touchdown sweep, and quarterback Riley Ferguson’s 10-yard scoring throw to Anthony Miller.
Ferguson finished 30-of-42 for 471 yards and four touchdowns. Miller finished with 195 yards and three touchdowns on 14 catches.
"We had no panic," Ferguson said.
The teams then traded touchdowns in overtime before 165-pound freshman Otis Anderson (16 carries, 117 yards) gave UCF a 62-55 lead with a 1-yard touchdown run. On Memphis’ final possession, Ferguson, under duress from blitzing linebacker Shaquem Griffin, threw a pass over the middle that was picked by safety Tre Neal.
"We were just in man coverage, and we just tried to pressure ’em," Neal said. "My dude blocked, so I just zoned off and I saw the ball come to me, so I just jumped and grabbed it."
It salvaged a 562-total yard effort by Knights quarterback McKenzie Milton that was periodically prone to error.
All five of Milton’s touchdown throws covered at least 24 yards, but he threw a season-high three interceptions — one in the Memphis end zone and one at the Tigers 1-yard line — after tossing only six his first 11 games.
"This kid hasn’t made any bad decisions all year, so he was probably due for one," Frost said. "And their kids made plays."
Frost’s kids made one play more.
"These guys just keep answering the bell," he said. "It’s unbelievable the heart and spirit they have."
The heart, the spirit, the resilience, the reclamation of UCF football — all was celebrated afterward on the field, as the Knights were being showered by gold-and-black confetti. As Frost’s onfield interview was being played on the PA system, UCF fans unloaded a chant of "Stay, stay, stay."
"The hard thing about all this is, they should give you time after the season to make (career) decisions and they don’t," Frost told reporters in his postgame news conference. "These things happen at the wrong time. The one thing I wasn’t gonna do was sacrifice my commitment to this team."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.