In the past 15 years, only three teams – Southern Miss (1996-97), Louisville (2000-01) and Tulsa (2007-08) – have repeated as Conference USA champions.
Unfortunately for UCF, its chances of becoming the fourth team to pull off a C-USA repeat ended Saturday night at the hands of Southern Miss and a heart-breaking final play on a failed two-point conversion pass.
UCF redshirt freshman quarterback Blake Bortles fired a 25-yard touchdown on the final play of regulation, but his potential game-winning two-point conversion pass was swatted down to end the game and resulted in a heartbreaking 30-29 loss to Southern Miss.
With momentum clearly on the Knights’ side at the end of the game, UCF coach George O’Leary decided to go for the victory instead of the tie at the end. Bortles completed 24 of 34 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns. But his final pass of the night was batted down by Southern Miss safety Jacorious Cotton to set off a wild celebration scene.
“We made the decision two minutes before that if we scored that we were going for two points to win this game,” O’Leary said. “We came to win the game and that gave us the best opportunity to win. But we came up short.”
UCF’s players seconded O’Leary decision to go for the victory rather than chance it in overtime.
“I loved the call because we had the momentum at the time and we had just put together a great drive,” said tailback Latavius Murray. “We punched it in for the touchdown, but we didn’t finish it off with the two-point conversion. But I was happy that we went for it and I was excited.”
Added senior linebacker Josh Linam: “I loved it and I thought that’s what (O’Leary) should do. We had a chance to win a game, but we didn’t finish it.”
UCF rallied to take a one-point lead with 8 minutes to play, but it was eliminated from contention for a third C-USA East Division title in the past five years Saturday night when Southern Miss marched for a go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown. Austin Davis, repeatedly a UCF killer throughout the past three years, threw a 4-yard TD pass and a two-point conversion to down the Knights at M.M. Roberts Stadium. His two-point pass-lateral to Lamar Holmes on a tackle-eligible play proved to be the game-winning points.
UCF (4-6 overall and 2-4 in C-USA play) must now win its final two games to become bowl eligible for a third consecutive season. Southern Miss (9-1 and 5-1) has only UAB and Memphis ahead of them before playing in the C-USA title game against either Houston or Tulsa.
The Knights play their final road game of the season next Saturday against East Division-rival East Carolina. The kickoff is at 7 p.m. and will be televised by Fox Sports. UCF closes the regular season at home on Nov. 25 against UTEP.
“From a morale standpoint, I feel like we came together as a team. But I’m still not happy about the loss,” tailback Ronnie Weaver said. “We’re going to do what we can now to get that sixth win and get to a bowl game.”
Added Victor Gray, who had four pass breakups from his defensive tackle position: “We play the way we did tonight in the next two games I feel we’ll get them and get to a bowl game.”
UCF took a 23-22 lead midway through the fourth quarter when redshirt freshman quarterback Blake Bortles found Ronnie Weaver for the first touchdown pass of the senior tailback’s career. But the lead would be short-lived for UCF as Davis and Southern Miss marched 80 yards in just 2:32 to go back ahead.
Bortles, who played the entire second half in relief of starter Jeff Godfrey, was effective throughout, but was intercepted by defensive tackle Deddrick Jones with 4:58 to play.
Undeterred, Bortles drove UCF’s offense down the field by completing seven consecutive passes. Facing a fourth-and-six with two seconds to play, Bortles hit J.J. Worton for a dazzling 25-yard touchdown that he went high into the air to haul in despite heavy traffic all around him.
“Blake has ice water in his veins,” gushed Weaver. “We were all depending on him to make plays for us and he came through. He came in with some adversity and in a tough situation playing here at “The Rock” and he played really well.”
Whereas UCF’s offense struggled most of the night in the red zone, the defense seemed to play its best football when Southern Miss drove into scoring territory. UCF’s defense, statistically ranked first in C-USA, held Southern Miss to five Danny Hrapmann field goals to stay within striking distance.
Said Linam: “The way our defense played speaks to the resolve that we have as a team. We came up short in this game, but we played our butts off.”
As they have all season, special teams’ woes again hurt the Knights. Trailing just 16-9 early in the fourth quarter, Worton fumbled a punt return deep in UCF territory. UCF’s defense held tough, but four plays later Southern Miss had a fourth field goal that pushed the lead back to 19-9.
“When J.J. came off the field (after the touchdown catch) he said he had to get one back because of the fumbled punt,” O’Leary said. “That was a great catch by Worton on the touchdown. There were a lot of momentum changes and the kids played their hearts out.”
Worton finished the game with a career-high 11 catches for 114 yards and a touchdown to lead the UCF receiving corps.
UCF responded with a big play of its own on the ensuing kickoff, making Southern Miss pay for its decision to pop up the kick. Junior Latavius Murray ran through a tackle and broke into the clear for a 69-yard return to draw UCF back to within 19-16.
UCF has now returned at least one kickoff for a touchdown in each of the past five seasons.
Senior kicker Nick Cattoi booted three field goals, the final one getting the Knights within 16-9 late in the third quarter. UCF moved the ball up and down the field all night, but repeatedly stalled near scoring position because of penalties and struggles in pass protection.
UCF got a bad break late in the third quarter despite a replay ruling going in its favor. Referees wiped out a pass interference call when a UCF challenge showed that a pass was tipped at the line. However, referees retroactively called UCF safety Kemal Ishmael for defensive holding on the play prior to the pass interference, resulting in a Southern Miss first down.
UCF and Southern Miss were flagged for a whopping nine penalties in the third quarter alone. Southern Miss had six penalties in the period, four of them for holding.
UCF drove across the 50-yard line and into Southern Miss territory on four of its first five drives, but managed just two field goals and trailed 13-6 at the half. The Knights drove inside the 35-yard line four times, but had to settle for Cattoi field goals of 48 and 38 yards.
Southern Miss had scoring drives of 96, 80 and 67 yards in the first half. The final one just before the half was kept alive when Southern Miss caught UCF off guard with a fake punt. Punter Peter Boehme hit Emmanuel Johnson for a 28-yard gainer. Strangely, Southern Miss didn’t convert a third down on six tries in the first half, but twice converted on fourth downs.
As promised by O’Leary earlier in the week, UCF rotated quarterbacks in the first half, alternating series with Godfrey and redshirt freshman Blake Bortles. Godfrey completed seven of 10 passes for 68 yards in the first half, while Bortles hit on six of eight throws for 49 yards. Worton set a career high for catches in the first half alone with five grabs for 49 yards.
The noise inside Roberts Stadium clearly got to the Knights early in the game. UCF’s offensive line was whistled for four false start penalties in the first quarter alone. The first two penalties stalled a drive, while the fourth one preceded a fourth-and-inches play and forced the Knights to punt.
UCF punter David Bohner pinned Southern Miss down at the 4-yard late in the first period, but it didn’t matter to a Golden Eagles offense that has made a habit out of stringing together long drives. Davis completed five passes on a 96-yard drive – first on a 60-yard fly route down the middle of the field and lastly on a 1-yard touchdown throw to Bruce Johnson that put Southern Miss up 7-3. It was Southern Miss’ fifth scoring drive of the season of at least 90 yards.
UCF jumped to a 3-0 lead early in the game when Cattoi booted a 48-yard field goal, the second-longest kick of his career. UCF drove to the 28 yard line, but set itself back with three false-start penalties. Godfrey had a 9-yard screen pass to Ronnie Weaver on third down to get the Knights in position for Cattoi’s boot from 48 yards out. Coincidentally, Cattoi’s career long kick of 50 yards came at Southern Miss in 2009.