TAMPA — Heading into the twelfth playing of the War on I-4 between UCF and USF, there was much anticipation as to whether McKenzie Milton would make his first appearance in two years.
About 90 minutes before kickoff Milton and a couple of teammates knelt and said a prayer at the spot on the Raymond James Stadium turf where the quarterback suffered a gruesome leg injury in 2018. Milton did not dress, though, and from the sideline observed a game that statistically surpassed the memorable 2017 meeting between the teams.
Dillon Gabriel accounted for five touchdowns (four passing) and Greg McRae (130, 2 TDs) and Bentavious Thomspon (110) both topped 100 yards on the ground as UCF hung on for a 58-46 win.
Jordan McCloud also accounted for five touchdowns, with four through the air. He was 32-for-46 for 404 yards (no picks) as the Bulls piled up 646 yards. McCloud’s top target was Bryce Miller, who caught 11 passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns. The Bulls (1-8/0-6 AAC) also had two running backs top the century mark: Kelley Joiner (116) and Brian Battie (102).
“I feel like for the first time all year we got a glimpse of what we could do offensively,” said coach Jeff Scott. “Obviously, we are disappointed in our record, but I am confident we made a lot of progress this season.”
In addition to 104 points, the teams combined for 1,223 yards and 66 first downs. They combined for 1,186 yards and 59 first downs in UCF’s thrill-a-minute 49-42 win in 2017.
The Knights (6-3/5-3), playing without leading receiver Marlon Williams and what was leading rusher Otis Anderson, have won four straight in the rivalry and evened the all-time series at 6-6. They have scored 179 points in the four-game series win streak.
After the Bulls struck first on a 23-yard TD pass from McCloud to Devontres Odoms-Dukes, the Knights rattled off 28 straight points. They led at the half, 31-14.
After the teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter, the Bulls cut the deficit to 45-38 on Battie’s one-yard run with 10:10 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls forced a three-and-out on UCF’s ensuing possession only to have Joiner fumble — his second of the game — when he was stripped by the Knights’ Divaad Wilson at the USF 40 with 9:01 left. McRae’s 20-yard touchdown run six plays later with 6:34 remaining put UCF up 52-38.
“The second half went exactly what we talked about at half time,” said Scott. “We talked about getting it to a one score game and we executed that real well until we got to the 9:01 mark of the fourth quarter when, unfortunately, we turned the ball over.”
Any suspense remaining was eliminated when Battie was stuffed on a fourth-and-one at the Bulls’ 34. UCF then scored to go up 58-38.
The Bulls, playing until there was no time on the clock, drove 60 yards on four plays to get into the end zone to close the scoring. That TD drive was very meaningful to Scott
“I told the guys how proud I am of them,” he said. “I am really proud of their effort and even though the game was over, my favorite drive was the last one of the game when we went down and scored.”
After opening with a win against The Citadel, the Bulls dropped eight straight. The loss was their 12th in a row to an FBS program dating to last season. In fact, since midway through the 2018 season, the Bulls have only won three of their last 25 versus FBS opponents.
Since the start of the 2017 season, the Knights have won 41 of 48 games with each of their seven losses by single digits.
Tom Layberger is a contributing writer for forbes.com. Read his feature on upgrades and safety measures at Raymond James Stadium as the venue prepares for hosting Super Bowl LV.