The “War on I-4” officially commenced today as the USF Bulls beat the Central Florida Knights 48-31 on Senior Day at Raymond James Stadium.
The last time the Bulls hosted the Knights in Tampa, they were shut out 16-0 in quite possibly the lowest point of the Willie Taggart era. Shades of 2014 popped up when the Knights took the first drive of the game 60 yards, capped by a three-yard Jawon Hamilton touchdown run. But Taggart and the Bulls destroyed any memory of those dark times today and claimed the program’s first 10-win season.
“That’s huge for any program. But for our program, again, it just shows the progress,” Taggart said. “We always talked about, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. No one stays the same. Our guys have been getting better. To get ten wins is always great. It’s hard to win football games. Not too long ago wins came pretty darn hard around here. For our guys to go out here and get ten wins this season is big time. It’s huge.”
The Bulls (10-2, 7-1) got things going on their second drive of the game, after a sack of Knights quarterback McKenzie Milton by defensive end Kirk Livingstone forced UCF to punt. Running back Marlon Mack broke free of the defense and ran 43 yards to make it 7-7.
Mack rushed 20 times for 155 yards and two touchdowns, the second of which was a 56-yarder which may have been his best run as a Bull.
OHHHHH MY GOODNESS. Marlon Mack now owns the soul of UCF's entire defense. Unreal run. 24-7 USF. pic.twitter.com/Fgq58jDhrc— Ryan T. Smith (@RyanSmithWrites) November 26, 2016
“It definitely was. A lot of guys on the other side were trash talking, so it gave me some extra energy,” Mack said.
Mack had his 20th career 100-yard rushing effort and seventh of the season. His two touchdowns extend his career record to 32 and season record to 15. Mack became just the third running back in state of Florida history to have three straight 1,000 yard seasons, joining FSU running backs Dalvin Cook and Warrick Dunn.
Mack hasn’t decided if he will forego his senior year and jump to the NFL.
“I have to think about it and make my decision after the season. It is a tough decision to make at this age and there are many pros and cons to it.”
Not to be outdone, quarterback Quinton Flowers had his ninth career 100-yard rushing day, seventh of the season. He also broke Mack’s season rushing record (1,381) with his 152 yard performance today, bringing his total to 1,425. Flowers has 15 rushing touchdowns on the year as the dynamic “9-5” duo battle it out to try to finish with more touchdowns at the end of the year. He also completed 17 of 26 passes for 152 yards.
The Gulf Coast Offense had another stellar game, racking up 351 rushing yards and 503 yards in all.
The defense bent but didn’t break, and came up with some very opportunistic turnovers. They held the Knights to only 64 yards rushing while coming up with three turnovers and three sacks.
“Our guys have been getting better,” Taggart said “I’m really happy, especially the last two weeks. I thought they made some big time improvements in a lot of areas. But again, these last two weeks we only focused on those three things I talked about last week, which were playing with fanatical effort, tackling better, and trying to get three takeaways.”
Senior linebacker Nigel Harris led the team with 11 tackles and 1.5 TFL. Auggie Sanchez added nine tackles and a fourth-quarter interception.
The defense also scored a touchdown when Milton tried to pitch the ball to his running back on a speed option and the ball fell to the ground. Defensive end Juwuan Brown scooped up the ball and followed his convoy into the endzone to take a 14-7 lead.
USF would tack on a Brandon Behr field goal from 33-yards out and the Mackquake to push their lead to 24-7 with five minutes left before halftime. Behr made two of three field goals and was perfect on extra points in his third game replacing injured kicker Emilio Nadelman.
The Knights pulled out their bag of tricks to get back into the game on a reverse pass from Tristan Payton to wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith for a 72-yard touchdown. Smith finished the day with seven catches for 183 yards and two scores.
On the ensuing kickoff, UCF (6-6, 4-4 American) attempted a surprise onside kick and appeared to recover it. But after a lengthy review, video showed the Knights’ player who recovered the kick stepped out of bounds and was the first one to touch the ball.
The Bulls took the opening drive of the second half 75 yards on three plays, ending with Flowers’ 62-yard touchdown run. Flowers had a convoy of blockers ahead of him, led by Mack.
UCF got the game as close as 31-24 with four minutes left in the third quarter, and it stayed that way until the midway point of the fourth quarter. Behr had a chance to push the lead to ten but his 41-yard field goal attempt bounced off the right upright. It seemed like momentum had turned, but on the next play Milton’s pass was deflected by defensive end Mike Love into the lap of Sanchez. It was Sanchez’s first interception since 2014 against Maryland.
“I’ve only missed about five this year,” Sanchez said.
On the very next play, Flowers kept the ball and ran in from 24 yards out to push the lead to 38-24.
Senior safety Nate Godwin picked off a Milton pass on UCF’s next series, atoning for a brutal drop earlier in the game. It led to Behr’s 30-yard field goal to make it a 41-24 advantage with four minutes left.
After the second interception, Knights head coach Scott Frost pulled the freshman and inserted beleaguered senior quarterback Justin Holman. He provided some spark when he hooked up with Smith for a 41-yard TD pass, but that was mostly Smith annihilating cornerback Deatrick Nichols after the catch.
Running back D’Ernest Johnson ran it in from one yard out on fourth down to ice the game with four seconds left.
- The offense broke the school record for most yards in season with 6,181.
- WR Rodney Adams (nine catches, 78 yards) jumped Huey Whittaker and Jesse Hester for most catches in a season with 60. He is three catches shy of tying Hugh Smith (131) for second all-time in career catches with 128.
- Senior RB Darius Tice did NOT walk for senior day, which may indicate that he will be granted an extra year of eligibility after his season-ending ankle injury against FSU.
- RB D’Ernest Johnson broke the career record for most receiving yards by a running back, passing Rafael Williams with 667 yards. He also moved into a tie with Clenton Crossley for second place in career receptions by a back with 56.
- WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling injured his hamstring but Taggart said he will be fine.
- Safety Tajee Fullwood was in street clothes at the end of the game and Taggart wasn’t sure why. Fullwood took a big hit during the game.