Add “conference champion” to Central Florida’s list of accomplishments in 2017.
A game between two of the best offenses in the country did not disappoint, but in the end, No. 14 UCF was able to hold off No. 20 Memphis 62-55 in double-overtime to clinch the American Athletic Conference title and a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl game. It was the highest-scoring conference championship game in college football history.
In what was likely head coach Scott Frost’s final game with the program, the Knights put up a whopping 726 yards of offense, led by 306 and five touchdown passes from stud sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton. Milton found his two favorite targets, Dredrick Snelson and Tre’Quan Smith, a combined 15 times for 306 yards and four of those touchdowns.
But it wasn’t easy for the Knights. Memphis matched UCF in offensive explosion and actually led 31-24 at halftime after intercepting Milton twice in the red zone in the second quarter. The UCF defense was able to put together a few stops in the third and the offense built a 48-34 early in the fourth.
But Memphis fought back, scoring twice in the final 9:02 to force overtime.
Both teams scored in the first extra frame and UCF’s Otis Anderson scored from a yard out to open double-overtime. Memphis advanced down to the UCF 5-yard line on a fourth-down completion from Riley Ferguson to Anthony Miller. But two plays later, Ferguson was intercepted by UCF’s Tre Neal to wrap up one of the best games of the season.
Neal’s clutch play keeps the Knights’ undefeated season alive heading into a New Year’s Six bowl — likely the Peach Bowl — and adds to the story of one of the best turnarounds in recent memory. When Frost took over the UCF program, the Knights went 0-12 in the previous season. Two years later, UCF is 12-0.
It was clear early on in this one that there wasn’t going to be a whole lot of defense and that Memphis would not go down without a fight. UCF stormed out to a 17-7 lead with Milton picking apart the Tigers’ secondary with ease. But after scuffling early in the first quarter, Ferguson and the offense got things going. Memphis scored touchdowns on four of its last five drives in the first half, storming back from the 10-point deficit and turning it into a seven-point halftime lead.
The Ferguson-to-Miller connection, as it has been all season, was a huge part of the TIgers’ offensive success. Ferguson found Miller behind the defense for a 68-yard score late in the second to give Memphis its first lead of the game, 28-24. A field goal as the final seconds of the half ticked off gave Memphis a 31-24 lead at the break.
But the third quarter was all UCF. Milton opened the second half scoring with a 16-yard run before finding Smith and Snelson for touchdowns of 34 and 28 yards. A field goal at the 9:51 mark of the fourth made UCF’s lead 48-34 and it looked like the Knights had things wrapped up.
However, two plays later, Memphis’ Tony Pollard reeled off a 66-yard score, cutting the lead to 48-41. The Memphis defense forced a UCF punt for the first time on the ensuing possession. From there, it took the Tigers less than three minutes to tie the score at 48-48 with 4:13 to play, this time with another Miller touchdown grab.
Both teams had opportunities to potentially win the game before regulation ended. Memphis had the best chance, but freshman kicker Riley Patterson missed from 51 yards out to cap off a wacky drive that included multiple delay of game penalties.
That forced overtime, where the Knights were eventually able to eke out yet another dramatic win. Last week, UCF played rival USF in what amounted to an AAC East title game. UCF prevailed 49-42 with a 95-yard kickoff return touchdown in the final two minutes.
Now, the Knights will see if that late-game magic carries over to the stage of a New Year’s Six bowl. Whether Frost is there to guide them through it remains to be seen.
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