It looked like it was going to be a huge comeback for East Carolina Thursday night at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. But the Knights kept the faith. And the Pirates left just a little too much time as the Knights won their second straight American Athletic Conference title on a Hail Mary.
Trailing 30-26 after giving up a 26-9 lead, UCF somehow had one last chance. With no time on the clock, sophomore quarterback Justin Holman launched a spiral toward the sky and the goal line. Miraculously, junior wide receiver Breshad Perriman came down with it at the 1-yard line and went into the end zone untouched. It set off a celebration unlike anything ever seen in UCF history.
ECU (8-4, 5-3 AAC) took over on downs with less than two minutes remaining and tried to run out the clock. But they left 10 seconds on the clock for UCF (9-3, 7-1).
Holman found wide receiver Josh Reese with a 14-yard sideline route to the UCF 49-yard line, with time for one last play to set up the Hail Mary.
“That was a great last play,” UCF head coach George O’Leary said, smiling. “That’s the second conference championship in a row, that’s the first time in school history. That’s great for the players and I’m happy so happy for them.”
“(Reese) set us up with a great catch on the play before,” Perriman said. “Justin threw the ball. I knew he was coming to our side. It was a perfect ball. I was blessed enough to come down with the catch.”
Holman said despite the circumstances, the Knights never lost faith.
“I just put it up in the air and let my wide receivers make a play,” he said. “That’s a blessing from above. We never lost faith. The guys on my sideline never lost faith, never gave up. There was no pouting, no heads down, no puppy-dog eyes. We went out there and executed. We practice that situation and we went out there and did it.”
Faith was a common theme amongst many of the Knights after the game.
“We play every game to 0:00, that’s what Coach O’Leary teaches us,” said defensive lineman Demetris Anderson, who tallied a team-high eight tackles, including 2.5 behind the line of scrimmage and 1.5 sacks. “It was 10 seconds left. Your head got down. I still kept faith.”
UCF had momentum for the first three quarters, taking a 26-9 lead into the final 15 minutes.
“I thought we played well for the first half. The third quarter, we played well early, then we started missing some tackles on defense and giving up some plays we shouldn’t give up,” O’Leary said. “Offensively, you can’t go three-and-out against these guys. I thought protection broke down a little bit in that fourth quarter.”
East Carolina grabbed the momentum early in a big way during the fourth quarter. A pair of Shane Carden touchdown passes in a span of less than three minutes pulled the Pirates back within three points, 26-23.
Carden then hooked up with Justin Hardy on a 13-yard scoring strike with 2:17 remaining to give ECU a 30-26 advantage and set up the final, heart-stopping series of events.
The Knights owned the second quarter. UCF outscored the Pirates 17-3 in the second stanza. The Knights took advantage of a Terrance Plummer interception to break a 6-6 tie. Four plays later, William Stanback punched it in to put the Knights on top 13-6. Shawn Moffitt’s PAT accounted for his 298th career point, giving him the Knights’ career scoring record.
Three minutes later, Moffitt added a 30-yard field goal to give the Knights a 10-point edge. Following a Demetris Anderson sack, UCF regained possession at its own 30-yard line. A pair of Justin Holman-to-Breshad Perriman hookups – 45 and 23 yards – allowed Stanback to punch it in a second time. That score put the Knights on top 23-6.
Shane Carden led ECU on a nine-play 55-yard drive that ended with a 37-yard field goal on the last play of the first half. But UCF owned a two-touchdown advantage at the intermission, 23-9. The Knights padded their lead to 26-9 in the third quarter on a 31-yard Moffitt field goal.
UCF kicked a pair of field goals, sandwiched around an ECU touchdown in the first quarter. Defensive linemanThomas Niles blocked the ECU PAT, leaving the score knotted at 6-6 after one quarter.