F or all the excitement, this was exactly why USF doesn't want to play Central Florida anymore. One year after crushing the Knights by 52 points, the Bulls escaped Saturday night, winning by an inch. For all the fun quotes in the newspapers, for all the rivalry between fans, the No. 17 Bulls barely averted heartbreak Saturday night, needing overtime to escape with a 31-24 win against an unranked Knights team motivated to make the most of its last shot at knocking off the Bulls. USF (2-0) led 24-10 with four minutes to play, but the Knights got an interception from linebacker Bruce Miller, then two touchdown passes from Michael Greco in 66 seconds. USF's Delbert Alvarado missed a last-minute field goal in regulation, forcing the overtime.
In the extra period, quarterback Matt Grothe capped a huge night, threading a pass between two defenders on third and 10 for a 25-yard touchdown to receiver Taurus Johnson. The defense, so stingy for the first three quarters, came back with one last stop to seal the win. It was so thrilling that the Bulls lost count of their body parts.
"When the defense made that stop, I was down on all four knees just praying, saying, 'Thank God we won the game,' " said Johnson, who finished with a career-high 143 yards on six catches.
The Knights (1-1), who hurt themselves with penalties all night, saved the worst for last with a false start on fourth and 1 from the 16-yard line in OT. Greco, who threw touchdown passes to Corey Rabazinski and Rocky Ross in the final four minutes of regulation, scrambled and made a move for the 15 but was stood up by linebackers Brouce Mompremier and Tyrone McKenzie. After a measurement, the referee held high a single hand, two fingers showing how close the Knights had come. Instead, they fell to 0-18 all time against ranked teams and 0-4 against the Bulls.
"I'm just glad I got up on him and he didn't get there first," Mompremier said. "I'm just happy to have a win. That's it. I can't think about nothing else but the win right now."
UCF got a huge night from cornerback Joe Burnett, who scored on a 91-yard kickoff return in the first quarter and set up two other scores with long punt returns.
The win improved USF to 7-0 all time in overtime games and was eerily similar to last year's second game, an overtime road win at Auburn in which the Bulls won despite kicking problems. Against UCF, Alvarado had a 46-yard attempt blocked, and with a chance to put the Bulls ahead with 15 seconds left in regulation, his 42-yarder missed wide left. Coach Jim Leavitt suggested a kicking change might be coming. "We have to try something different," he said.
The kicking, among other special-teams woes and Grothe's two interceptions, made the game far closer than Leavitt or the Bulls wanted.
"We made a lot of mistakes, and we didn't use our judgment with three minutes to go in the game," Leavitt said. "We had the game under control with (four) minutes to go. … We have to make better decisions because we put our defense in such a tough position."
Grothe carried the offense, as he has for much of the past two seasons. He threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns, including two to tight end Cedric Hill in the third quarter to lift USF out of a 10-10 halftime tie. Two years ago, in his first road start in the Citrus Bowl, Grothe rallied USF to victory over UCF, throwing for 301 yards and three touchdowns.
Now the Bulls can move on to Friday's game at home against No. 14 Kansas. That Saturday's game — and the four-game series with Central Florida — are over is a welcome relief for the Bulls.
"To beat a team four times in a row is pretty tough to do," Leavitt said. "Especially against Central Florida. They are a very good football team. … I am proud of our players. I am proud of their fight."