USF went toe-to-toe with No. 16 UCF on Black Friday in a back-and-forth contest that nearly spoiled the Knights’ Bowl Championship Series aspirations.
Down 23-20 with 1:20 left on the clock, Bulls freshman quarterback Mike White had a chance to lead the Bulls to one of college football’s biggest upsets of the year but threw an interception at the UCF 39-yard-line, just as the Bulls neared junior place-kicker Marvin Kloss’ field goal range.
“I thought the game was lost when we threw the interception,” coach Willie Taggart said. “We still had an opportunity there.”
With help from a USF defense that forced a season-high five turnovers in White’s fourth career start, he nearly engineered a victory over Knights junior quarterback Blake Bortles, who came into the game as the focal point of the highest-scoring offense in the AAC.
Though Bortles finished with two interceptions and a fumble that accounted for the bulk of UCF’s turnovers, the more experienced and polished of the two starting quarterbacks, Bortles, got the upper hand.
After USF freshman safety Nate Godwin intercepted Bortles with a 20-16 lead and 6:54 left in the fourth quarter, things were looking bright for the Bulls.
“You could feel the breath taken out of the fans when we went up,” junior receiver Andre Davis said. “But we just couldn’t cash in.”
A holding penalty on senior offensive lineman Steven Jacques and three incomplete passes later, White and the Bulls had no choice but to let Kloss, the 2013 Lou Groza Award finalist, try to take a seven-point lead from 51 yards out.
He missed, setting up Bortles and UCF with 5:54 to reach the goal line 67 yards away.
“We could’ve took that game by going up two scores,” Davis said.
Three plays later, Bortles pump-faked and kept Godwin, the same USF safety who intercepted him just more than a minute earlier, at a distance on a deep route to UCF sophomore receiver Breshad Perriman, who already had a few steps of separation from USF freshman cornerback Lamar Robbins.
Perriman crossed the goal line untouched and gave UCF the 23-20 lead that soon became UCF’s 10th win of the season and first win in five meetings with USF.
It resembled the entire year for the Bulls.
When it’s time to come up with the big play to win the game, Davis said no big plays were made on the offensive side of the ball.
“Coach Taggart puts us in the predicament to win the game each time we step on the field,” he said. “We got to make the plays. We got to put our feet on their throats and win the game. UCF is too good of a team to give them the ball with a chance to win.”
White completed less than 50 percent of his passes for the first time in four starts, going 15-of-34 for 211 yards and an interception.
“He played well enough for us to win,” Taggart said. “He made some mistakes but made some plays to keep us in the game.”
As for a defensive effort of five forced turnovers that were squandered, Taggart said he knew there were points left on the field.
“The defense had five turnovers, and you’d like to get points off of it,” he said. “We didn’t get as many as we’d like to. That’s part of us getting better and understanding we have to get those points. We have to get touchdowns, but we still had a chance.”
While senior safeties Mark Joyce and JaQuez Jenkins were suspended for a violation of team rules, Taggart said his seniors are constantly talking about setting a foundation for the USF program before they exit and that comes from “caring about each other a lot more now.”
USF finishes the season at Rutgers on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.