TAMPA, Fla. (AP)Alec Holler made a leaping, one-handed catch for a touchdown on a 14-yard pass from Mikey Keene with 20 seconds remaining to lead No. 25 UCF to a 46-39 win over South Florida on Saturday night and earn a spot in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
”That was a wild catch, wasn’t it?” UCF coach Gus Malzahn said. ”That’s a play we’ve been working on for about four-five weeks. We almost called it two plays earlier. That’s the kind of play that wins championships.”
Keene completed a 41-yard pass to Javon Baker for a first down at the South Florida 29. Keene added a 10-yard run on a keeper to get the ball to the Bulls’ 15 and set up Holler’s leaping, twisting game-winning grab for UCF (9-3, 6-2 AAC).
”I definitely knew I had caught, and when I peeked over at the scoreboard and saw my foot kind of dragged,” Holler said. ”So I knew it was good.”
South Florida (1-11, 0-8) got the ball to the UCF 32, but the Bulls’ last-ditch attempt went out of the end zone.
UCF will play at No. 19 Tulane (10-2, 7-1) in the AAC title game on Saturday.
The Knights scored on their first four possessions of the game to take a 28-0 lead midway through the second quarter. But South Florida stormed back, scoring 22 points in a 3:44 span of the third quarter to pull within 31-29, forcing two turnovers to set up touchdowns.
”We were in control of the game in the first half, really in control,” Malzahn said. ”I think we turned the ball over on back-to-back plays and we had three turnovers in the second half. We didn’t play our best defensively and still found a way to win.”
South Florida even took a 39-38 lead with 7:02 remaining in the game when Bulls quarterback Byrum Brown reeled off a 42-yard TD run off an option keeper.
”These young men battled their tails off,” South Florida interim coach Daniel Da Prato said. ”I hurt for being so close. I’m just so damn proud to be a Bull.”
The Knights answered with a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Keene throwing a 4-yard touchdown to Kobe Hudson to make it 38-29. Keene was 15 of 19 for 129 yards and two touchdowns.
”I’m proud of our guys for their resilience for the adversity that happened throughout the game,” Keene said. ”Rivalry games are never (easy).”
UCF starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee had eight carries for 133 yards and a touchdown before he left the game with a pulled hamstring. He was also 9-for-9 passing for 73 yards and a touchdown.
Brown threw for 140 yards and rushed for 109 and a touchdown. Brian Battie rushed for 144 yards and two touchdowns for the Bulls.
For the second time this season Keene came off the bench to lead UCF to a late game-winning touchdown. Keene said he draws off the experience of having 10 starts last season and preparing like a starter. ”It’s all a mentality, in my opinion,” Keene said. ”John and I have a great relationship. We talk throughout the week and prepare together.”
THE END OF THE WAR … FOR NOW
With UCF heading into the Big 12 next season the ”War on I-4” between the two schools will be on hiatus. The series started in 2005 and had a four-year gap between 2009 and 2013 before it was restarted. The earliest the series could likely resume is 2026, when both teams have an opening in their non-conference schedule.
UCF: Plumlee’s health will be a big factor going into next week’s AAC title against No. 19 Tulane in New Orleans. Keene’s experience coming off the bench proved key to another late win for the Knights. UCF, which won six straight against rival USF, will head to the Big 12 next season.
South Florida: The Bulls will announce their new head coach Monday after Jeff Scott was fired on Nov. 6. Whoever takes over could inherit some young talent on offense, especially Brown – as long as he and others decide not to enter the transfer portal.
UCF: Will play at No. 19 Tulane (10-2, 7-1) in the AAC Championship Game next Saturday
South Florida: Season is over.
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