ORLANDO ― From a brief pregame altercation to an in-game fracas to a raucous prime-time crowd, the latest installment of the “War on I-4” featured most of the elements indigenous to any significant rivalry.
The only noticeable missing ingredient? Suspense.
For USF fans, that arrives now.
In the wake of the Bulls’ 34-7 loss Friday to UCF at Spectrum Stadium, the green-and-gold demographic waits to learn the fate of third-year coach Charlie Strong, whose program has lost 14 of its last 18 games and is bowl-ineligible for the first time in five years.
“I know this, I know how to win,” Strong said in a mildly defiant tone when asked why he warrants a fourth season.
“I’ve been part of two (national) championships (as Florida defensive coordinator), I’ve won championships (as Louisville coach) and I’ve got a good coaching staff and they know how to win. ... I never worry about that. The only thing I worry about is that we have a good coaching staff, I know our coaches are good coaches, and we can go get it done.”
But in a results-based occupation, recent results have been unflattering.
USF is 21-16 on Strong’s watch, with only three victories against teams that finished the season with a winning record. None of those is UCF, which now owns its first three-game win streak against the Bulls.
Based solely on such numbers, athletic director Michael Kelly’s next move seems clear. But the terms of Strong’s confidential buyout deal (believed to be in the $5 million range) complicate matters. And a sequence of significant injuries throughout the season offers a substantial alibi.
Yet exhibitions such as Friday’s might leave Kelly, new president Steven Currall and USF’s board of trustees no choice. When the Spectrum Stadium emergency alarm went off late in the third quarter, some might have presumed it had been triggered by the dumpster fire on the opposing sideline.
Before an announced Black Friday audience of 45,216, USF (4-8, 2-6 American Athletic Conference) failed to score a first-half offensive touchdown for the sixth time this season.
At halftime, the Bulls had more than three times as many penalty yards (50) as rushing yards (16), finishing with 11 infractions for 80 yards. Four of the whistles were for false starts.
“I think for some of the younger guys, the crowd noise got to them," senior tight end Mitch Wilcox said.
"Unfortunately we weren’t able to get our snap communicated to our o-line, and that was an apparent issue. And then in turn, we were behind the chains on our first and second downs, and they’re pinning their ears back and sending blitz, so it’s tough to drive the ball like that.”
USF finished with only 250 total yards, less than half as many has UCF (539). In their last two games, the Bulls totaled 160 passing yards.
UCF had 159 in the first half Friday.
“I think offensively all year, we missed so many opportunities that we left on the field," said redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan McCloud, thrust into a full-time starting role when senior Blake Barnett went down with a season-ending ankle injury in late September.
"We just obviously can’t do anything about it now besides just make sure that doesn’t happen and move on to the offseason.”
The Bulls’ deepest first-half push into Knights territory ended when McCloud was intercepted by free safety Antwan Collier, who jumped a seam route intended for Eddie McDoom at his own 10. In the fourth, his fourth-and-goal pass was picked by Eriq Gilyard, negating a 19-play, 83-yard drive.
Only a determined ― if not efficient ― effort by the Bulls defense kept the final score from being more unsightly.
After surrendering a 12-play, 65-yard touchdown drive on the game’s opening possession, USF held the Knights to 39 total yards on their next three. UCF (9-3, 6-2) missed a 39-yard field goal, punted and turned the ball over on downs during that stretch.
But eight plays after Collier’s pick of McCloud, 5-foot-8 Knights senior Adrian Killins burst through an A-gap for a 35-yard scoring run, giving the Knights a 14-0 lead with 11:41 to play in the half.
“We know this, you’ve got to get scores, you’ve got to be able to match scores, you’ve got to be able to run the ball, you’ve got to play physical at the point of attack,” Strong said. “Defensively, we played well at times, we played well early, but then we’ve just got to be able to make plays to give them a rest and get them off the field.”
UCF drove 87 yards on 11 plays on its next possession, ending with freshman left-hander Dillon Gabriel’s 32-yard TD pass to Gabriel Davis. A Dylan Barnas 50-yard field goal gave UCF a 24-0 halftime lead.
The Bulls avoided a shutout midway through the third when sophomore Johnny Ford, reinstated after a seven-game suspension, dashed 39 yards to set up his 1-yard scoring run on fourth down.
But at that point, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
Kelly’s next move might be one as well, though Bulls fans ― and the Bulls coach ― must wait to find out for sure. Before exiting his postgame press conference, Strong was asked if he knows yet whether he’ll remain for a fourth season.
“I have no idea,” he said.
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls