ORLANDO — The de facto American Athletic Conference East Division title game commenced on a damp, cool afternoon beneath gray skies. Meteorologically, it was a bleak Friday.
For USF, it ultimately faded to black, but not before USF quarterback Quinton Flowers delivered the masterpiece in his bulging volume of breathtaking dual-threat exhibitions.
On a national TV stage, in the biggest game in his school’s 21-season history, Flowers set USF single-game passing yardage (503) and total-yardage records (605) before a late special-teams breakdown and turnover doomed the Bulls.
UCF junior Mike Hughes’ 95-yard touchdown on a kickoff return with 1:28 to play lifted the 13th-ranked Knights (11-0, 8-0) to a 49-42 victory before an announced Spectrum Stadium crowd of 47,129.
Thirteen seconds before, Flowers had found receiver Darnell Salomon in a mismatch on the left side, and connected with him for an 83-yard touchdown, cutting the Bulls’ deficit to 42-40.
On the ensuing two-point attempt, he scrambled right, then threw across his body to D’Ernest Johnson, who was quarantined in the left corner of the end zone.
"I gave it my all," said Flowers, who eclipsed Matt Grothe’s school career total yardage record in the first half, and now has 11,385.
"Way before we even went out, guys were saying, ‘Empty your bucket. Just go out there and put it all on the line.’ That was the only thing that was going in my mind, just putting it on the line for them guys. Whatever you have to do, just do it."
Had this been a mid-October renewal of the War on I-4, the performance just might have propelled Flowers from the fringe to forefront of Heisman Trophy conversation. As it stands, he’ll end his career in a second-tier bowl, possibly in Annapolis, Md., or Birmingham, Ala.
"Quinton has a reputation for being a runner and not a thrower, and he threw for 500 yards tonight," UCF coach Scott Frost said. "So my hat’s off to that kid. We busted on some coverage, but he made some throws and the receivers made plays."
UCF moves on to host Memphis in next Saturday’s AAC title game, Flowers’ 23rd birthday. The Group of Five conference champion ranked highest by the College Football Playoff committee earns a berth in a New Year’s Six game.
UCF, the nation’s top scoring offense entering the game (48.2 ppg), was 15th in the latest CFP rankings.
On Friday, Flowers single-handedly out-gained the Knights, 605-533.
"I mean, unbelievable, the way he ran the ball, the way he threw the ball, how he just kept getting us out of bad situations," USF coach Charlie Strong said. "But you could tell he was gonna have a good game. This morning when we usually do a walk, he was kind of off to himself and he had that serious look on his face, and you just knew that tonight was gonna be his night."
His top target Friday: 235-pound junior slot receiver Tyre McCants, who had established a USF single-game receiving yardage record (six catches, 210 yards) by halftime. McCants finished with nine receptions for 227 yards.
In what would serve as a harbinger of this offensively dazzling night, McCants took a short Flowers pass on the game’s third play and dashed for a 47-yard touchdown, dragging a defender into the end zone.
"McCants played so well, but that’s the way he is at practice," Strong said. "He comes out, he makes a lot of catches, he’s really strong. He’s hard to tackle, just a powerful runner."
UCF answered by scoring on its first three possessions (two of which were assisted by a Bulls personal-foul penalty) and took a 21-7 lead. But the Bulls, employing six and seven defensive backs at a time in an effort to negate the Knights’ speed, forced four consecutive punts.
UCF’s scoreless second quarter was only the third period all season in which it had failed to score. Then, the ebb and flow resumed, hitting a breakneck pace in the final five minutes.
After a Ronnie Hoggins interception, USF took a 34-28 lead when Flowers dashed up the middle for a 24-yard touchdown with 3:41 to play in the third, giving USF a 34-28 lead. It was the first time UCF had trailed in the second half all season.
The Knights re-took the lead when quarterback McKenzie Milton, scrambling to his right, found sophomore Dredrick Snelson isolated behind the Bulls secondary for a 35-yard touchdown with 7:33 to go. His 23-yard touchdown toss to freshman Otis Anderson, on a short screen pass, gave the Knights a 42-34 lead.
Milton finished with 429 total yards, going 29-of-44 for 373 yards and four touchdowns.
"He’s lights out and he’s not getting enough credit for what he does on the football field," Frost said. "In my opinion, he should be in the Heisman race."
Flowers followed with his 83-yard touchdown pass to Salomon (five catches, 139 yards) two plays later. Hughes then dashed into UCF lore on the ensuing kick, when Strong had his "victory" kickoff team (mostly seniors) in the game.
USF’s final opportunity ended when tight end Mitchell Wilcox hauled in a 10-yard throw from Flowers and fumbled while trying to fight for extra yardage with 39 seconds to play.
"I told Mitch, ‘It’s done, there’s nothing we can do about that. It happened for a reason. I know what you were trying to do and the coaches know what you were trying to do,’?" Flowers said.
In the end, even his handling of defeat was sparkling.
"Amazing," senior running back Darius Tice said. "He’s the best quarterback that I’ve ever played with, ever, in life."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.