TAMPA — When No. 25 UCF celebrated a two-point conversion in the closing seconds of its 46-39 win over USF, Isaiah Bowser threw his index fingers and pinkies toward the ground in one of the most famous taunts in college sports. Horns down.
It was a dig at UCF’s “War on I-4″ rival, yes, but also a preview of the Knights’ future in the Big 12, where they’ll be taunting mighty Texas starting this summer.
Though UCF and USF will no longer be in the same conference, make no mistake: The Knights are not out of the Bulls’ league. Not after the way the Bulls battled back in another buckle-up thriller in this intense interstate series — the last one for a while.
“I hurt for being so close,” USF interim coach Daniel Da Prato said.
But close was an unbelievable accomplishment, given how things started. UCF (9-3, 6-2 AAC) trucked the Bulls early, looking like a heavily favored, nationally ranked team on its way to next week’s conference championship game at No. 19 Tulane.
The Bulls (1-11, 0-8) turned the ball over on three of their first five possessions and fell behind 28-0. UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee needed only 19 minutes to top 100 rushing yards, and UCF scored on five of its first six possessions (twice on Plumlee rushes). Through three quarters, the Knights’ only incompletion was a spike to stop the clock.
USF, by its metrics, had a 99.8% chance of defeat in the third quarter.
“We took our 0.2 opportunity,” Da Prato said, “and made the most of it.”
USF linebacker Dwayne Boyles recovered a pair of fumbles (on consecutive UCF snaps, no less) to help the Bulls explode for three touchdowns in a span of 3 minutes, 44 seconds.
Da Prato said there were no major schematic adjustments, no new wrinkles. The Bulls simply executed better and found one missing ingredient — one that could have easily disappeared as this lame-duck staff played out a lost season.
“Belief,” Da Prato said.
USF finally took the lead with 7:02 left with a 42-yard breakaway touchdown by quarterback Byrum Brown, who rushed for 109 yards in his second career start. USF got the ball back when East Lake High alumnus Joshua Green knocked the ball loose for the Knights’ third fumble of the half. The Bulls took over near midfield with 5:13 left and a chance to seal it. They couldn’t.
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USF went three-and-out on three consecutive stuffed runs Da Prato refused to second-guess. Either way, the failure set up a defining sequence that will be remembered on both sides of I-4 for a long time.
“That last drive,” UCF coach Gus Malzahn said, “was a classic drive.”
UCF quarterback Mikey Keene — back in the lineup after Plumlee left with a hamstring injury — hit a diving Javon Baker for 41 yards. Keene ran for 9 and, finally, hit redshirt senior tight end Alec Holler, who made a sensational one-handed catch and dragged his right foot just inbounds for a 14-yard touchdown.
USF had one final gasp, but Brown’s Hail Mary bounced to the Raymond James Stadium turf, leaving the Bulls with a sixth consecutive defeat in the series. It will sting for years.
When UCF joins the Big 12 next summer, the series will have to become a non-conference game. And because the teams’ non-conference schedules are booked through 2027, the next meeting is almost certainly a half-dozen years (or more) away. The good news is that both sides seem committed to resuming the series when their schedules eventually align.
“Rivalry games,” Malzahn said, “there’s nothing like them.”
Especially this one. Two relatively young programs, 96 miles apart, built a fierce rivalry over a trophy shaped like a highway sign. The games are so intense that a second-quarter scuffle ended with every single player being flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
When the series paused in 2008, USF was a year removed from rising to No. 2 in the country and soaring to new heights. The Knights were an afterthought. Since then, the Bulls are on their fifth head coaching search. The Knights, meanwhile, have a good shot at appearing in their fourth major bowl game and are headed to the Power Five.
The Bulls will soon be left behind. But Saturday’s thriller showed that the Knights are not out of their league.
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