TAMPA — Like most sequels, the 2018 version of the "War on I-4" couldn't replicate the instant classic USF and UCF staged last November. Not even close.
The high stakes and high scoring of the 2017 thriller were absent Friday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium. The mesmerizing ebb and flow of last year's game, rife with offensive haymakers and subsequent counter punches, never really materialized.
And instead of a heart-stopping finish, an announced crowd of 57,626 was exposed to a stomach-turning casualty.
By the anticlimactic end to this 38-10 Knights triumph, the line of demarcation separating the winners from the losers seemed blurred.
Victory and defeat both winced, for altogether different reasons.
"Just overall, we're not a very good football team," Bulls coach Charlie Strong said following his team's fifth consecutive loss. "You look at us, we were very fortunate to win the seven games that we won."
Just down the Raymond James Stadium tunnel, the grim vibes were similar.
In the costliest of its 24 consecutive victories, No. 8 UCF (11-0, 8-0) lost junior quarterback and fringe Heisman candidate McKenzie Milton to a ghastly knee injury early in the second quarter.
Specifics of the injury remained unclear more than an hour after the game, but still photos showed Milton's knee badly contorted. Players and coaches from both teams surrounded him before he was carted off the field.
"You can tell by their reaction that they wanted to be over near him, by him and support him with everything that was going on in that moment," Knights coach Josh Heupel said of his players. "It's hard."
Even with Milton gone and Heupel opting for a more conservative bent the rest of the way, the Knights (391 rushing yards) still brandished an offense more productive than USF's, which has become painfully predictable during its skid.
"A lot of people weren't focused," said Bulls freshman tailback Johnny Ford, who ran for a team-best 120 yards and had a 34-yard scoring catch. "There are too many fingers being pointed, too many things being said."
USF's 10 points were its fewest in a game since a 16-0 loss to UCF in its 2014 finale. Only a 25-yard field goal by Coby Weiss with 3:09 to play in the first half kept USF (7-5, 3-5) from being held scoreless for four consecutive quarters, dating to last weekend's loss at Temple.
"We have to (re-evaluate)," Strong said. "And we have to look at what we're doing."
With junior quarterback Blake Barnett sidelined by an injured shoulder and ankle, the telegraphed tendencies of offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert's veer-and-shoot system were illustrated during a futile first-half sequence that produced no points.
Late in the first period, Bulls redshirt freshman Nick Roberts intercepted a high Milton throw across the middle and returned it 30 yards to the Knights 12-yard line. But three consecutive Ford run plays — none to the outside — netted 9 yards, and junior Jordan Cronkrite was stuffed for no gain on fourth and 1.
"I think they were pressed up on us on the outside," Strong said. "So we felt like if we could just move 'em off the line of scrimmage we had a chance to go get the first down."
UCF answered with a 97-yard scoring drive, its longest of the year. Behind fourth-year junior Brett Kean, the Bulls answered with a promising seven-play drive to the Knights 35, but on fourth and 2, Gilbert again opted for a Cronkrite run up the middle.
Again, he was stopped short. UCF answered with a 42-yard Matthew Wright field goal, and later tacked on a 40-yard scoring run by Greg McCrae for a 17-0 lead.
By the time Strong chose not go for it on fourth and 1 from his 43, with more than 10 minutes to play and the Bulls down 24-10, a hearty chorus of boos ensued. McCrae (16 carries, 181 yards, three touchdowns) scored on a 31-yard run four plays later to essentially seal things.
"We weren't moving the football," Strong said, "so I didn't go for it again on fourth down."
By then, a wholly unsatisfying sequel was pretty much finished.
"That team right now is better than us," Strong said, "and we've got a ways to go before we can catch them."
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.