ORLANDO — For a few fleeting moments, there were probably some collective gasps by the USF faithful that reverberated from Tampa to Cocoa Beach.
On a blustery Thursday evening at Bright House Networks Stadium, there was winless Central Florida, moving the ball downfield, seemingly at will. A 30-yard heave on the game’s first play from Justin Holman found the hands of Tre’Quan Smith. Then, a 23-yard pass four plays later to Smith set up a 28-yard field goal.
Five minutes into their personal Super Bowl — a chance to avoid humiliation with the worst record in program history — floundering UCF led 3-0.
Time for USF coach Willie Taggart to worry, right? Please.
His Bulls responded with a nine-play, 61-yard touchdown drive on their ensuing possession, capping it with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Quinton Flowers to Chris Barr. They never let up from there en route to a 44-3 romp.
“We did the things that we wanted to and we knew Central Florida was going to come out and give us their best shot,” Taggart said. “I told our guys we’re going to give our best shot as well and we’ll see who will win.”
“Our guys came out and they were in attack mode the entire football game.”
Though USF (8-4, 6-2) took care of business and checked one goal off its list with the victory, another remains frustratingly out of reach.
The Bulls entered the Thanksgiving break needing to defeat UCF (0-12, 0-8) and have Connecticut upset No. 20 Temple on Saturday in order to clinch a spot in the AAC championship game at Houston.
Despite an assortment of tweets from fans and pleas from players — with senior tight end Sean Price even throwing in a “Go Huskies!” during the postgame press conference — it didn’t happen. The Owls dominated for a 27-3 victory.
“Y’all really just gassed us up some more to be completely honest,” defensive back Devin Abraham tweeted late Saturday night. “But we’ll go bowling for the mean time.”
Indeed they will.
The Bulls wrapped up their most successful regular season since 2007 and are also a bowl-game victory away from tying the program’s record for most wins in a season. In the last three games of this current four-game win streak — the longest for USF in four seasons — the Bulls outscored opponents 106-16.
The Knights simply played the role of a speed bump.
They had no answer for the Bulls’ offense, which racked up 455 yards — including 102 from sophomore tailback Marlon Mack for his record eighth 100-plus-yard rushing performance of the season — and converted 11 of 16 times on third down. UCF didn’t convert one until late in the third quarter.
Flowers produced three touchdowns through the air to break Marquel Blackwell’s single-season mark of 20 and added two more on the ground. Placekicker Emilio Nadelman, who nearly lost his job after missing two critical field goals in a 29-17 loss at Navy on Oct. 31, hit three from 44, 41 and 43 yards to extend his streak to nine.
At one point, the Bulls scored on five straight possessions. Last season, they didn’t score once in a 16-0 loss to Central Florida at Raymond James Stadium — the first home shutout in program history.
“We’ll play with anyone right now,” Taggart said. “Our guys are confident in what they can do and I think we all have seen how they’ve been playing the last couple weeks.”
Give UCF credit, though — at least its fans made things interesting.
Several times during the ESPN broadcast, an array of signs were picked up from the announced gathering of 25,697 around the half-empty stadium.
One read, “Beat Somebody.” Another, “I’m Thankful For … The End of This Season.”
Taggart was thankful, too. But for a much different reason:
The victory meant the Bulls defeated every team in the AAC East.
“You look at our football team, we’re the divisional champions,” Taggart said. “How about that? We beat everybody in our division.”
In an ideal world, that would mean a lot more. But a bowl trip will have to do in the meantime.