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American Athletic Conference

American Stories – The Streak is Over, but UCF Can Still Stand Tall

Mark J. Rebilas - USA Today Sports

GLENDALE, Ariz.— UCF had set the gold standard for American Athletic Conference football by winning 25 consecutive games over the course of two seasons.

But nothing lasts forever.

SEC powerhouse LSU finally punched a hole in the Knights’ fairy tale run Tuesday, defeating UCF, 40-32, in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium. The great debate over whether the Knights (12-1) belonged in the College Football Playoff  temporarily evaporated after quarterback Joe Burrow, a graduate transfer from Ohio State, threw for 394 yards and four touchdowns.

The Tigers (10-3) dominated total yardage, outgaining the Knights 555-250; and controlled time of possession, 44:31 to 15:29.

But the Knights, to their credit, didn’t do down without a fight. They competed for all four quarters and pulled within eight points when Taj McGowan scored on a 2-yard run with 2:12 to play and quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. completed a two- point conversion to Otis Anderson with 2:24 to play.

UCF attempted an onsides kick. But the ball, which had bounced right so many times during this marvelous streak, bounced the other way this time and was recovered by LSU tight end Foster Moreau at the Knights’ 46-yard line.

UCF’s defense forced LSU to punt after four downs and got the ball back at its own 12 with 39 seconds to play, but the suspense ended three plays later when LSU defensive back JaCoby Stephens intercepted a pass at the 45 with 20 seconds remaining.

The Knights badly missed the composure of their wonderful junior quarterback McKenzie Milton, a Heisman Trophy candidate who stood on the sidelines on crutches, looking on helplessly with an injury he suffered early in a 38-10 win over USF in the regular-season finale as the Mack attempted to gain some rhythm on offense.

“They’re a good football team,” UCF first-year coach Josh Heupel said. “We didn’t do enough in this football game offensively just to get the first down, to get the drive going. We got behind the chains and had too many third-and-long situations.”

Mack, a talented 6-3, 230-pound freshman who rallied the Knights to a 54-41 victory over Memphis in the American championship game, did not have his finest hour in his third start of the season. He completed 11 of 30 passes for 97 yards and a TD that cut the LSU lead to 24-21 with four seconds left in the half. But he was under pressure all game and was sacked five times by a fierce Tigers’ defensive line that compensated for a depleted secondary with an aggressive pass rush.

“I just need more reps in the off season,” Mack said. “I just have to focus. I don’t want to feel like I did today again.”

For most of the players, the loss came as a shock. UCF is one of the best stories in college football. The Knights resurrected the program after an 0-12 season in 2015. The seniors had not lost in two years. The sophomores had literally never been in a losing locker room as collegians.

UCF gave us more than its share of thrills the past two years, finishing the 2017 season with a 49-42 victory over USF in what was generally considered the most exciting game nationally that year; a 62-55 double overtime victory against Memphis in the 2017 American Championship ; then a win against Auburn 34-27, in the Peach Bowl to complete a 13-0 season.

This year, UCF rallied from a 30-14 halftime deficit to beat Memphis, 31-30 in a regular season game at the Liberty Bowl when Milton scored on a 7-yard run early in the fourth quarter. Then, in the rematch, Mack stepped up and accounted for 407 yards and six touchdowns as the Knights erased a 17-point deficit to defeat the Tigers and win their 25th straight game.

But this time, they came up short.

“Obviously, everybody in the locker room is really upset,” UCF senior tight end Michael Colubiale said. “We haven’t lost a game since 2016. This program has come so far. I’m just excited to watch as a fan for the future. I think this program is just getting started. I think we’re going to make regular appearances in a New Year’s Day Bowl, and I’m so proud to attend this school and play for this program.”



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