ORLANDO — If a turning point can take place before a game begins then, well, Saturday night at Spectrum Stadium might have been it.
South Florida won the coin toss, deferred, and UCF said “thank you” by going 65 yards in 12 plays to take a 7-0 lead before the game was three minutes old.
The Knights, who honored the seniors before their last home game, never looked back in a 34-7 win over the Bulls. The victory marked UCF’s third straight in the War on I-4, the last two by a combined 72-17.
“I thought our defense was suffocating the entire night,” said UCF coach Josh Heupel, of a unit that limited USF to 250 yards and forced three turnovers. “Offensively, we did enough to score the points that we did. Still, we had some opportunities that we didn’t take advantage of. But, overall we took care of the football and won the turnover battle.”
Dillon Gabriel threw for 270 yards and two touchdowns in leading a turnover-free performance by the offense. His 19-yard touchdown pass to Gabriel Davis capped the opening possession.
“A big thing was to not turn the ball over,” said Gabriel. “I am glad we got the win to send the seniors out the right way. Emotions were everywhere, the guys with their last game in the Bounce House. They were the guys who started this and laid a great foundation for the (younger guys).”
Second-quarter touchdown drives of 70 and 87 yards, the former capped by senior Adrian Killins’ 35-yard run, increased the lead to 21-0. Dylan Barnas’ 50-yard field goal with three seconds remaining made it 24-0 at the half with UCF holding a 330-107 advantage in total yards. The final tally was 539-250.
“I can’t believe it was my last game in the Bounce House,” said Killins, who ran for 115 yards on 14 carries. “I was running with a chip on my shoulder. Last time playing in the Bounce House and last time playing here with my brothers to my left and right.”
Even when something went well for USF, the Knights had a response. Johnny Ford, playing his first game since September due to suspension, scored from a yard out to put the Bulls on the board midway through the third quarter to make the score 24-7.
UCF (9-3/6-2 American) took the ensuing kick and went 82 yards on eight plays, capped by Darriel Mack’s two-yard touchdown run to make it 31-7 with 4:22 remaining in the third quarter.
Mack, who led the Knights to a comeback win in the American Conference championship game last year against Memphis and has been the primary backup to Gabriel this season, entered the game during the drive.
The win was the Knights’ 21st straight at home covering the last three seasons.
“We talked about finishing the game the right way, our seniors finishing the regular season the right way,” said Heupel, whose team awaits its bowl destination. “To finish the home season in this fashion was important, too.”
The Bulls (4-8,2-6) finished the season with their 14th loss in their last 17 games against FBS opponents. Their inability to get on track this season, combined with six straight losses to finish last season, has led to many questions regarding Charlie Strong’s job status.
“Let me tell you this, I know how to win,” said Strong when asked if he deserves to be back next year. “The only thing I worry about is that we have a good coaching staff. I know our coaches are good coaches and we can go get it done.”