Written by Ernie Casanova
GLENDALE, AZ— For the second straight year, the UCF Knights have created much conversation when it comes to the CFP rankings and undefeated seasons. The Knights were once again left out of the College Football Playoff, although they went 12-0 but still gained the same amount respect, or lack thereof, in terms of being selected for another New Year’s Six Bowl. The Knights traveled across the country just like their opponent, the LSU Tigers, to State Farm Stadium in Glendale to battle for the Playstation Fiesta Bowl crown. LSU defeated the Knights 40-32 to hand them their first loss in two seasons.
The first half was certainly hectic, but it was one to remember for all of the right reasons. The opening kickoff return was taken back 77 yards by Tigers running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, only for the Knights’ defense to go ahead and stop them on a third and goal only allowing them three points. UCF began their first drive on their 31-yard line and freshman QB Darriel Mack Jr. immediately found WR Marlon Williams for a 23-yard strike. A few plays later, RB Greg McCrae broke free for a 25-yard touchdown run to score the game’s first touchdown and put the Knights on the board. On the next possession for the Tigers, QB Joe Burrow threw a pass that was intercepted by CB Brandon Moore and returned 93 yards all the way to the house for a touchdown. The biggest moment in that play wasn’t the return, it was a block put on Burrow by Knights lineman Joey Connors as he tried to chase down the defender that laid him out. He would stay down as trainers would attend to him, but by the looks of it, it was the exact wake-up call that he needed.
“Score touchdowns. Complete passes,” said Burrow of what he was thinking of after the hit. “I didn’t really think about the hit too much after I got up. Hurt for a second. I got right up and went on to the next play.”
The Knights were up 14-3 nine minutes in, and people all over were quick to write the narrative. But, Burrow and the rest of the Tigers had other plans. On their next drive, LSU drove the ball upfield on an 11-play, 67-yard drive that was capped of by Burrow touchdown throw to WR Justin Jefferson. The second quarter began with Burrow throwing a 49-yard bomb to WR Derrick Dillon that resulted in their second touchdown. At 17-14, the Knights suffered a quick four and out, to which the Tigers capitalized as Burrow found Jefferson again for a 33-yard touchdown to close up a nine play, 78-yard drive.
The Knights’ defense kept the Tigers in check from pulling away early, but due to the quick early scoring from the Knights, they still lacked some weight in terms of offensive statistical categories. The Tigers had out-gained the Knights, who was the third-ranked team in the nation in terms of total offense, by 100+ yards in the first half.
As the half came to a close, Mack found WR Gabriel Davis in the corner end-zone for a 32-yard beauty of a touchdown that fired everyone inside of State Farm Stadium up. LSU went into the locker room at the half leading 24-21, and we folks had us a competitive contest in our hands.
The second half began with UCF again settling for a three and out on a drive that only lasted 50 seconds. After the Knights punted, LSU scored on the ensuing possession as WR Ja’Marr Chase hauled in a 32-yard pass from Burrow to go up 31-21. After another three and out by the Knights, LSU used up near seven minutes of the game clock which led to K Cole Tracy converting on a 28-yard field goal. On the next Knights possession, LSU forced a punt and Jefferson muffed it as it came to him which allowed the Knights to recover and start a new drive in great scoring position. The Tigers, on the other hand, were playing tremendous defense all game and held them to a field goal.
“I thought they did a good job of getting to the quarterback,” mentioned UCF Head Coach Josh Heupel after the game of LSU. “Part of that is playing behind the chains at times, too, where you’re in predictable situations and you put all of those things together. That’s why we didn’t play as well as we were capable of at times for 60 minutes.”
After a field goal from Tracy five minutes in put the Tigers up by 13, LSU quickly got the ball back and began to chew up the clock by using 7:12 seconds to score another field goal. The Tigers were leading 40-24 with four minutes left, and UCF was facing an uphill battle that has evaded them for two years. The Knights quickly got upfield to cut the lead on a RB Taj McGowan 2-yard touchdown run as they also converted the two-point conversion. A forced punt by UCF on LSU gave them a last glimpse of hope, but a tipped pass at the end resulted in an interception for the Tigers that sealed the Knights fate.
Mack finished with only 97 yards passing, going 11-30 with one touchdown and the late interception. McCrae finished with 81 yards on 10 rushes with the lone touchdown and Davis led the receiving corps with 59 yards on three catches and a touchdown. The Knights were out-gained in total yardage 555-250 and in first downs as well 32-17. Heupel wasn’t afraid to mince words after the game, reflecting on the struggles.
“They’ve got really good players and coaches, no doubt about it. We had some opportunities on both sides of the football. Taking special teams out of it to do some things in the second half, to make plays, put the kids in the right position, whatever it might have been. They’re a good football team. We didn’t do enough in this football game offensively just to get the first down, to get the drive going. Got behind the chains and too many third-and-long situations.”
Burrow had a fantastic outing while surviving that early hit, throwing for 394 yards and going 21-34 with four touchdown passes. LSU Head Coach Ed Orgeron was happy with Burrow’s play while embracing the win.
“Joe is an excellent quarterback. We believe in him. He’s got excellent leadership skills. He’s come to practice every day. He works every day. He’s exactly what we feel like an LSU quarterback ought to be.”
RB Nick Brossette was embracing the bell cow role, rushing 29 times for 117 yards also adding a five-yard reception. Chase led all LSU receivers with six catches for 93 yards and a touchdown, while Jefferson was responsible for two scores and four catches for 87 yards. Dillion had two catches for 86 yards and WR Stephen Sullivan also contributed with three catches for 76 yards. On a day where everyone was speaking about UCF’S high powered offense and how the Tigers won’t keep up, LSU came to ball out.