ORLANDO (UCFKnights.com) – It was improbable, unbelievable … and perhaps predictable. The UCF Knights (12-0) won the American Athletic Conference Championship, storming back from a 17-point deficit to pull away from the Memphis Tigers (8-5) 56-41 Saturday evening at Spectrum Stadium.
The contest started eerily similar to the matchup earlier this season in Memphis.
With one glaring difference.
The Knights’ starting quarterback who cartwheeled his way into the end zone to beat the Tigers 31-30 in a driving rainstorm back in October was at home watching this one after suffering a devastating knee injury one week ago. The reins of the offense were turned over to redshirt freshman Darriel Mack Jr.
While Mack was solid in last week’s 38-10 win at South Florida, three team turnovers in the first hal – with two fumbles lost by the quarterback – led to 17 Memphis points and a 38-21 advantage for the Tigers at the intermission. The Knights’ defense allowed five scores on Memphis’s first five possessions. But the Knights’ offense matched that with five touchdowns in the second half, scoring on every possession, outside of running out the clock to start the celebration.
“Obviously it wasn’t going well in the first 30 minutes of play,” UCF head coach Josh Heupel said after the game. “Uncharacteristic turnovers from us … (we) had a hard time stopping the run early. But again, our kids just continued to fight and believe in the guy next to them, believe in themselves, believe in what we’re doing inside of our program. (They came) out the next 30 minutes and played absolutely fantastic football. Our locker room was extremely calm at halftime. Similar to what the score was in the first half going in against Memphis the first time around. And I don’t think anybody blinked tonight.”
Mack had a hand in all five second-half touchdowns. He passed for one and rushed for four more, tying the UCF school record for rushing touchdowns in a game. For the game, Mack was 19-of-27 for 348 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 59 yards and those four scores. It was the most passing yards by a UCF freshman since Ryan Schneider threw for 365 yards in 2011.
“Going into the football game, starting quarterback’s gone, everybody has confidence in D.J.,” Heupel said. “I think you saw that tonight. D.J. has got a lot of confidence in himself and played fantastic football.”
To open the third quarter, Mack found a streaking Otis Anderson for a 54-yard touchdown, pulling UCF back within 10. Following a huge punt return from Anderson, Mack drove the Knights 45 yards in eight plays and finished the drive with his legs, going 4 yards for a score to pull within 38-35.
Memphis’ best scoring opportunity came on the ensuing possession. The Tigers drove to the Knights’ 10-yard line, but couldn’t punch it in. They settled for a field goal and a 41-35 advantage.
Mack and the offense went right back to work. Greg McCrae, who had a monster game with 206 yards rushing, made his biggest play on this possession. Facing 4th-and-1 near midfield, Heupel decided to go for it. McCrae bounced the running play to the outside and broke off a 50-yard run to the Memphis 2-yard line. Mack did the rest with a 2-yard run. Matthew Wright’s extra point gave UCF its first lead of the game with 14:28 remaining. They would never relinquish the advantage.
Following a missed field goal, UCF drove 71 yards in eight plays. Once again, Mack went in from two yards out. UCF led by eight points, 49-41, with 6:37 left. The Knights’ defense then forced a three-and-out. Mack and company then put it away. His 48-yard strike to Snelson put the ball in Memphis territory and the feeling that UCF was going to complete the comeback became palpable. Adrian Killins Jr. took four straight handoffs, burning clock and driving UCF to the 5-yard line. Heupel once again called Mack’s number. Five yards later, the Knights led 56-41 with just 2:29 remaining.
Defensive back Richie Grant sealed things with an interception in the end zone and just 33 seconds remaining.
“Since I’ve gotten here in January, no matter what has hit them adversely, they’ve reacted and responded in a positive way,” Heupel said. “They draw closer to each other. They believe harder in what we’re doing. They continue to push in a positive way.”
While Mack was stellar in just his second career start, McCrae turned in one of the best rushing performances ever by a Knight. His 206-yard effort was the 10th-best single-game rushing performance in UCF history. Dredrick Snelson caught four passes for 120 yards, while Gabriel Davis added six receptions for 101.
Defensively, the Knights were led by Kyle Gibson and Nate Evans. Gibson recorded a team-high 11 tackles, while Evans tallied eight and two tackles for-loss. Trysten Hill recorded three tackles for-loss, as well.