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Fennelly: In all that drama, real rivalry is born

USF fans congregate during the first half of Friday's (11/24/17) in-state rival NCAA football game between UCF Knights and the USF Bulls at Spectrum Stadium at the University of Central Florida (UCF). (Douglas R. Clifford, Times)
USF fans congregate during the first half of Friday's (11/24/17) in-state rival NCAA football game between UCF Knights and the USF Bulls at Spectrum Stadium at the University of Central Florida (UCF). (Douglas R. Clifford, Times)
Published Nov. 25, 2017

ORLANDO — Now it's a rivalry.

We had talked all week about what it would take to turn USF-UCF into a real rivalry, because it's too young to be one. Not enough history. What would it take?

It took Friday.

It took UCF 49, USF 42.

It took nonstop drama, up and down, back and forth, two teams refusing to give in. It took a packed stadium that shook from the fans. It took unending emotion.

What a game.

It took the game of a lifetime, the stuff of legend in a losing effort, from USF senior quarterback Quinton Flowers, 605 yards of offense. Flowers' voice cracked during a postgame radio interview.

It took that pile of UCF players on Knights kick returner Mike Hughes after he scored the winning points with 1:28 left.

And it took tears — tears from USF sophomore tight end Mitchell Wilcox of Tarpon Springs after he fumbled after making a catch for a first down, and with it went USF's last chance in a game that didn't really want to end.

We don't know if Charlie Strong will return to coach USF next season or if Scott Frost will return to coach UCF. All we know is they were in Orlando on Friday. They brought their teams to play, on national TV. And play they did.

So what if everybody forgot how to play defense?

There was 1,186 yards of offense.

An amazing show.

What does it take to make a rivalry? When your history is only eight games between you, it takes a lot. It takes everything you have. And it takes having a chance to take everything away from the other guys.

That was Friday at Spectrum Stadium, a chance for USF to ruin undefeated and 13th-ranked UCF's perfect season, a chance for USF to get its shot at the first conference title in school history while at the same time spoiling UCF's perfect run.

It didn't work out that way. UCF ruined USF's dream. "It eats at you right now," Strong said.

Should USF have kicked at Hughes, the Knights' return star?

A question, for sure.

Back to all that emotion.

"These are the type of games that make it a rivalry," Strong said.

They raise you up.

They break you down.

USF trailed 21-7 in the first quarter. It looked over early.

"The way we were moving the ball, I thought we were going to put it away," Frost said.

But USF stormed back behind Flowers, who was simply astounding. He threw for 503 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 102 yards and a score. When he ran that one in 3:41 left in the third quarter, USF grabbed a 34-28 lead.

It was just the beginning. UCF scored to make it 35-34 with 7:33 left, then again to make it 42-34 with 2:21 left, on two TD passes from sophomore QB McKenzie Milton, who threw for 373 yards and four TDs.

It wasn't close to being over. Flowers found receiver Darnell Salomon behind the defense. Salomon raced 83 yards, all the way, to pull the Bulls within two. Flowers threw back across the field to a wide open D'Ernest Johnson for the conversion. It was 42-42 with 1:41 left.

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And it still wasn't over.

Hughes took it back.

The pile grew. The stadium shook.

"My heart skipped four beats," Milton said.

"I'm going to go back and watch the tape to remember exactly what happened," Frost said.

USF tried one last time. Wilcox grabbed a Flowers pass on third and 9 and crossed midfield for the first down. But he took a hit. The ball popped out. UCF fell on it. Wilcox lay motionless on the field, his head buried in the grass. After, his teammates hugged him. UCF players hugged him. His tears wouldn't stop.

"His heart is truly broken," Strong said. "He thinks it's his fault. But it isn't his fault."

It was just the end of the beginning of a rivalry.

"That's what you picture college football being," Milton said.

Will Charlie Strong leave? Will Scott Frost leave?

USF-UCF might be here to stay.


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