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USF Bulls’ furious rally against UCF foiled by one final defensive lapse

USF, which barely has had a defensive stand all year, couldn’t make one in the waning moments.
UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee (10) runs for a 64-yard touchdown in the first quarter Saturday against USF. The Knights amassed 345 yards on the ground in a wild 46-39 triumph.
UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee (10) runs for a 64-yard touchdown in the first quarter Saturday against USF. The Knights amassed 345 yards on the ground in a wild 46-39 triumph. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Nov. 27, 2022|Updated Nov. 27, 2022

TAMPA — At the final juncture of a futile season, the unit with a mostly diminished pulse the last four months suddenly had a steady heartbeat.

USF’s defense, statistically the worst in major-college football, was falling on loose balls, forcing fumbles, stonewalling screen passes on third-and-critical.

“We got stops when we needed to, we got turnovers when we needed to,” Bulls interim coach Daniel Da Prato said. “We gave ourselves a chance, and we played better than we’ve been playing, which is all we ask.”

But what was shaping up as a grand finale gave way to a fitting epitaph.

Behind its backup quarterback, UCF — down by one — drove 82 yards in two minutes, 29 seconds to clinch a 46-39 triumph at Raymond James Stadium. Tight end Alec Holler, just a tad too isolated on the left side, made a one-handed snag of a Mikey Keene throw and kept part of his lower body inside the front pylon with 20 seconds to play.

“That last drive was a classic drive,” UCF coach Gus Malzahn said.

And in a more cynical sense, a classic defensive lapse for USF in the waning moments.

“It just came down to execution at the end of the day,” senior linebacker Dwayne Boyles said.

As the Bulls showcased a highly serviceable — and often sleek — offense (438 total yards) to the nation, the defense mostly showed why it has turned previously obscure foes into player-of-the-week honorees, and why it almost certainly will be overhauled by the new staff.

UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee completed all nine of his throws and amassed 206 total yards (133 rushing, 73 passing) in one half before exiting with a hamstring injury. At one point, the Knights quarterbacks were 17-for-18, with the lone incompletion a Plumlee spike on the next-to-last play of the first half.

“If (Plumlee) had stayed healthy, he would’ve rushed for 300 yards, there’s no doubt in my mind,” Malzahn said.

And based on the course of the season, no reason to doubt otherwise. USF (1-11) entered the game as the nation’s only Division I-A team allowing at least 500 yards a game (514.0). It also ranked 130th of 131 teams in scoring defense (40.7 ppg), and 128th versus both the run (224.7 yards per game) and pass (289.3). On Saturday, it surrendered 547 yards, including 345 on the ground.

But if nothing else in this forgettable fall, it gave USF a chance in its biggest game of the year.

“Obviously (we) gave up 28 points (in the first half),” said Boyles, who recovered two fumbles (forcing one) in a wild six-play span in the third quarter that gave USF new life. “But coming into the second half, I felt like we bowed up.”

A final heartbeat, if you will.

Now, a fan base awaits a resuscitation.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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