After quick three and outs by each team, UCF started their second drive from their 49-yard line trying to benefit from the field position. The Knights, however, were not able to take advantage as on the fifth play of the drive, a mishandling of the snap would cause a fumble that allowed Tigers LB Deshaun Davis to recover the ball. On the next possession for Auburn, it only took five plays to get into the red zone after they too started at their own 49-yard line. However, the UCF defense was able to hold them off and contain the Tigers to just three points as kicker Daniel Carlson converted a 25-yard field goal. Auburn would continue to convert first downs and went into the second quarter with a 3-0 lead while still maintaining possession, but flamed out as they punted just a few plays later.
It took six minutes, but the Knights eventually were able to get on the board with a field goal of their own as K Matthew Wright hit one through the uprights from 33 yards out. On the ensuing Auburn possession, Knights’ lineman A.J Wooten forced Tigers QB Jarrett Stidham to fumble the ball, and UCF DB Tre Neal recovered it. Neal returned the ball 36 yards into Auburn territory, and an 18-yard touchdown run from UCF QB Mackenzie Milton just two plays later gave the Knights a 10-3 lead. Both teams traded possessions for the rest of the half, and both squads were only able to score a field goal as the Knights went into the locker room at halftime with a 13-6 lead.
This is where things became a little more interesting.
At the beginning of the second half on the kickoff by UCF, Tigers’ return man Noah Igbinoghene brought it 72 yards to the Knights’ 26-yard line to put them in spectacular field position. A couple of plays later, Stidham completed a 26-yard pass to WR Will Hastings to tie it all up at 13-13 as the Tigers scored in just 43 seconds. Auburn was doing an outstanding job defensively against the number one offense in the nation, giving them fits all game. With the ability to capitalize on forcing another punt, the Tigers took a 20-13 lead on a 4-yard rush by RB Kerryon Johnson. Things were looking a little frustrating for the Knights, but they did not break.
UCF got the ball at the 4:14-minute mark and started going to work. Milton was responsible for each first down converted on that drive and capped off the quarter with a 12-yard pass to Otis Anderson to again bring the game to a tie. Auburn failed to make any plays in the final two minutes and the game entered the last quarter with the score at 20 apiece. The Knights got their groove and at this point started to run away with the momentum.
As the first eight minutes went by, the Knights took a commanding 14-point lead. It was a shocker all across Mercedes-Benz Stadium as it looked like an AAC victory over the SEC was coming to fruition. It was 34-20 as a 45-yard pick six return from Knights LB Chequan Burkett gave UCF a comfortable cushion with only six minutes left to play. Auburn only took just under two minutes to go 79 yards up the field, as a targeting call on UCF and three large consecutive completions from Stidham to Hastings help them advance upfield. Running back Ed Stove pounded the ball into the end zone on a seven-yard run as this now became a one score game. With only four minutes left to play at this point, UCF had thrusted themselves into a nerve wrecking situation, failing to hold on to the ball and giving the Tigers two minutes to move up the field as they were forced to punt.
With all the chips on the line, it was Stidham’s time to shine. However, he unfortunately couldn’t. After 11 plays and gaining 54 yards on the possession, Stidham threw a costly interception with 24 seconds left that sailed into the back of the endzone to seal the fate of each team’s season. The Knights’ offense came out on to the field, and as Milton prepared to kneel the ball, you can feel the music in the air. With all the criticism and doubters taking away from much of the Knights success throughout the season, this was undoubtedly a delightful moment for UCF and the state of Florida. The Knights finished their perfect season with a terrific game and sent off head coach Scott Frost as a champion to his new home in Nebraska.
“You know, a memory, I’m going to have a ton of memories from this place. UCF has been unbelievable to me. Having my first child was incredible and then getting to spend time around guys like this all season and watching them have the success that they had. It will be hard for me to ever top 2017,” an emotional Frost stated after the game on what this means to him.
As the nation’s second-ranked passer regarding efficiency, Milton had an average outing. He went 16-35 for 242 yards but also threw two touchdown passes. He shined in the running game, as he led the team with 116 yards rushing on 13 attempts and had that first touchdown on a rush as well. Struggling in the first half, Milton stated, “yeah, you know, we kind of came out sleepwalking, throwing the ball in the air. I don’t know if it was the big lights or the big Jumbotron. You know, I think we kind of started hitting our stride later in the second quarter and then in the third and fourth quarter we started rolling.”
Tre’Quan Smith led the receiving corps with five catches for 89 yards, and Dredrick Snelson was right behind him with four catches for 39 yards and a touchdown reception. It was a valiant effort by the Knights as they played an Auburn squad who was their most respected opponent all year. They totaled 411 yards, which was ten less than Auburn, but used a significant amount of defensive help as the team tallied up six sacks on Stidham.
Stidham finished the game going 28-43 for 331 yards passing and a touchdown throw, but also was responsible for giving up two interceptions and a fumble.
“Very disappointed, obviously. We had a real chance to tie it up at the end and it is just very disappointing,” Stidham mentioned when asked about what he was thinking after the loss. “We just didn’t execute. That is really what it comes down to. We didn’t really make a whole lot of adjustments at halftime. What we were doing was going to work if we would have just executed the right way.”
Kerryon Johnson led all running backs with 77 yards rushing and a touchdown, and Hastings led the receiving group with six catches for 117 yards and the touchdown grab.
Hastings wasted no time mentioning that without the win, stats mean nothing.
“I knew I had scored a touchdown, but it doesn’t mean anything at the end of the game if you don’t win. I wish we could have pulled it out, but we will get ready for a new year,” he stated.
Well, it was clearly a numbers game, and each team shredded each other offensively. UCF just made the right plays on defense that proved to be costly for the Tigers’ chances to win.