TAMPA — USF got off to a promising start Friday in the annual War on I-4 matchup with UCF, taking their first lead in the rivalry since the third quarter of the 2017 game. Then came 28 unanswered points from the Knights.
But USF rallied to make it competitive in the second half — pulling within a score midway through the fourth quarter — before UCF prevailed 58-46 at Raymond James Stadium.
The regular-season finale was the eighth straight loss for the Bulls (1-8, 0-7 American Athletic Conference), extending their longest single-season skid in the program’s 24-year history. It’s also the first time USF has finished winless in conference play.
“We couldn’t finish it there in the fourth quarter,” first-year coach Jeff Scott said after the loss, which evened the all-time series at 6-6, though the Knights have won the past four. “For the year, obviously disappointed with our record. No getting around that. But one thing I will say is, you know, I’m very confident that we made a lot of progress this season.”
But Scott said the game was a sign that the program is on the right track.
“(I’m) really proud, outside of the two turnovers and a couple costly penalties, really proud of the offense,” he said. “I felt like, really for the first time all year, we got to see the glimpse of what we could do offensively.”
Jordan McCloud played a big role in the offensive highlights, completing 32 of 46 passes for 404 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed for 43 yards and a touchdown, though he was sacked five times.
“I really felt like he definitely played his best game of the year,” Scott said. “I felt like Jordan managed (the game) very well. What he did out there today is something that I know we’re going to be able to build off of.”
McCloud said the comfort level on offense stemmed from the team’s mentality of having fun in their last game of the year and not overthinking things. The effort led to the Bulls’ outgaining the Knights in total yards, 646-577.
“I love the way we finished today, especially on that last drive,” McCloud said, referencing the four-play, 60-yard drive in just over a minute, ending with a 19-yard scoring pass to Bryce Miller with 14 seconds left. “(It’s) momentum into the offseason, that’s a big thing. When we do things right, it looks really well for us, especially on the offensive side of the ball.”
The ground game also found some success for USF with freshman Brian Battie, who rushed for 53 yards on the team’s third touchdown drive and finished with 102, and sophomore Kelley Joiner, who had a team-high 116 yards on 14 carries.
McCloud is the first Bulls quarterback since Quinton Flowers (2017 Birmingham Bowl against Texas Tech) to throw four touchdown passes in a game. He’s also the first to surpass 400 yards passing in a game for USF since Blake Barnett (411 yards against Illinois, Sept. 15, 2018).
“My O-line did a great job picking up blitzes,” McCloud said. “The receivers did a great job coming down with the catches, making plays after the catch and all that, and the running backs (did great) as well.”
Some had anticipated a return to game action for UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton, who nearly two years ago as a starter sustained a horrific knee injury against USF on the same field. Milton, who has not played in a game since that injury, participated in warmups without his right knee brace, but the redshirt senior did not play.
“I haven’t suited up all year, and I don’t see the point in going out there today for sentimental reasons,” Milton told ESPN. “For me, I don’t want (to) go out there until (I’m) 100 percent and playing at a high level. So there’s no rush for me to get back out there on (the) field. That’s been the basis of me suiting up all year — am I 100 percent, and right now I’m not.”
Starter Dillon Gabriel remained prolific for UCF, going 22-of-36 for 336 yards and four touchdowns — three to receiver Jacob Harris — with one interception. He also had a 12-yard rushing touchdown.
Gabriel kept the ball moving, leading the Knights on quick drives to keep UCF (6-3, 5-3) in control. Seven of eight scoring drives were completed in 10 or fewer plays. Three drives were scored on four plays or fewer, including one two-play drive.
“We just ran out of bodies and ran out of steam,” Scott said of his defense. “We’re going to get better on defense when we get more bodies back. … But I think the lessons that those guys learned is only going to make us better.”
- USF receiver DeVontres Odoms-Dukes (Wharton High) said after the game that he will be working toward the NFL draft. The fifth-year senior had five catches for 66 yards and two touchdowns in the game. “I made the decision a few days ago that I think it’s best that I proceed forward,” he said.
- Miller had 11 receptions for 121 yards and two touchdowns for the Bulls.
- Scott said that postponed games against Navy and Florida Atlantic will not be rescheduled. “I know that our director of athletics, Michael Kelly, has had conversations with both Navy and FAU and due to some of the things they have scheduled the next couple of weeks, it was not going to work out.”