UCF’s offense totaled only 411 yards after averaging 540.4 during the season, but quarterback McKenzie Milton, named the offensive MVP, was sacked only once and did enough with his arm (242 passing yards) or legs (116 rushing yards) to send coach Scott Frost to his new job at Nebraska with a school record for victories in a season and the gratification of rebuilding a program that finished 0-12 three years ago.
“I wanted to do it for them,” Frost said of his decision to stay with UCF through the game. “I didn’t know if we had a chance or not, but I thought us coaches being here would give us the best chance. I can’t believe they did this. They pulled this off under these circumstances. It’s a credit to these players.”
Auburn (11-3), trying to beat an undefeated team for the third time in its past five games, instead was beaten in Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the second consecutive game after almost a month ago losing to Georgia in the SEC Championship game. That loss cost the Tigers one of the four spots in the playoffs. Now, Auburn must return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for its 2018 opener against Washington in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game Sept. 1.
“I'm hurting for our seniors,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “This senior group has been very special. Helped get us to here. Helped us win the SEC West and just really disappointed for those guys in that locker room that we couldn't send them out with a victory.”
The game was billed as Auburn’s defense, one of the best in FBS in total defense (312.3 yards per game) and scoring (17.3 points per game), against UCF’s offense, the best in FBS (49.4 points per game).
But, really, only the UCF fans among the 71,109 who bought tickets the game gave the Knights a realistic shot.
UCF, champions of the American Athletic Conference, did go 12-0, but the list of teams it beat, and the scores, didn’t seem like something a team like Auburn, which beat undefeated Georgia and Alabama during the regular season, should worry too much about. While Auburn was competing against playoff teams such as Clemson, the Bulldogs and the Tide, the Knights were throttling Memphis 62-55 in a Tecmo Bowl-like game, USF 49-42, Austin Peay 73-33, East Carolina 63-21, Cincinnati 51-23 and FIU 61-17.
Video-game football wouldn’t work against a powerhouse from the SEC, would it?
Asked after the game if UCF should be considered the national champ, Griffin and Milton didn’t hold back.
Griffin said there’s no one left for the Knights to beat.
“I guess to the college committee, it's just what more can we do?” he said. “We won all of them, and I just feel that we should have had an opportunity to show our talents to any and every team that wants to go against us.”
Milton was more blunt.
“I said on the podium, you can go ahead and cancel the playoffs,” he said. “I'm not changing my mind.”
Frost said it wasn’t right that UCF didn’t get a chance and he thought the playoff committee made decisions that seemed geared toward justifying not giving his team a shot.
“These guys deserve everything they get, and they deserve more credit from the committee than what they got,” he said.
Here are five observations about the game:
Turnovers the difference late. Turns out the Knights can ball, proving it by Antwan Collier intercepting Stidham in the end zone with 24 seconds left to end what could have been a game-tying drive.
UCF scored its final touchdown when linebacker Chequan Burkett intercepted Stidham and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown to give UCF a 34-20 lead with 5:56 left. It was a horrible decision and pass by Stidham, who never looked off his receiver.
Burkett needed to take just a step to from his zone to intercept the pass with an open field in front of him.
Stidham bounced back to lead the Tigers on a touchdown drive to cut UCF’s lead to 34-27 on a 7-yard touchdown run by Eli Stove with 4:12 remaining.
Stidham finished 28-of-43 for 331 yards with one touchdown. He had 12 carries for minus-25 yards and his longest run was 7 yards.
Special-teams miscues. UCF had chances to put away the game earlier, but Auburn's Derrick Brown blocked a 25-yard field-goal attempt with 6:58 left.
After Auburn got within a touchdown, Milton led the Knights on another drive. This time, Matthew Wright missed the 38-yard field-goal attempt wide left with 2:18 left. He was good on a kick of 45 yards to end the first half.
Auburn’s Daniel Carlson, the SEC’s all-time scoring leader, missed a 53-yard field-goal attempt early in the second quarter. He was good on kicks of 25 and 46 yards.
Second half gets going. After a boring first half, it didn't take long for both teams to come out in the third quarter and find gears that seemed frozen by the 20-degree temperatures that were chilling the Atlanta air outside the stadium.
It started with Noah Inbinoghene returning the kickoff 72 yards to UCF’s 26-yard line. Two plays later, Stidham hit Will Hastings with a 26-yard touchdown pass to tie the score at 13-13 with 14:05 left.
The Tigers scored again on their next drive, taking a 20-13 lead on a 4-yard touchdown run by Johnson with 7:55 left in the third quarter. The drive was kept alive with 29-yard pass down the left sideline from Stidham to Darius Slayton on third-and-7 at the 35-yard line.
Finally forcing a punt after three consecutive Auburn scoring drives, UCF tied the score at 20-20 on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Milton to Otis Anderson with 1:30 left in the third quarter. The Knights moved 65 yards in seven plays.
After forcing another punt, UCF took a 27-20 lead early in the fourth quarter on an 8-yard pass from Milton to Dredrick Snelson with 11:36 left in the game. The drive covered 59 yards and pushed UCF’s total to 308.
Few fireworks early. Those who braved the 20-degree temperatures to attend the game probably hoped to be more entertained than they were in a bizarrely uncharacteristic first half for both teams.
Two teams that combined to average almost 75 points and 975 yards per game totaled 19 points and slightly more than 300 yards.
Auburn, one of four teams that averaged more than 250 yards rushing and passing game, had 185 yards, but needed 47 plays. Its running game, powered by quarterback Jarrett Stidham and running back Kerryon Johnson, had just 45 yards on the first 26 carries.
The passing game was just as abject, with Stidham sacked five times for a loss of 41 yards in the first half.
Its first six drives: Punt, field goal, missed field-goal attempt, turnover, punt, field goal.
“Just with us, you know, looking back at the whole game, the first half was very uncharacteristic,” Malzahn said. “You know, we had one of our worst halves that we've had all year and that was disappointing. I think we were sacked five times on offense. We had six penalties. That was very uncharacteristic.”
UCF was just as poor. It opened the contest going three-and-out, fumble, three-and-out, and kicking a 33-yard field goal that tied the game 3-3 with 11:11 left in the first half.
Without its final drive that resulted in a field goal to end the second quarter, UCF, which averaged 540.4 yards, would have had less than 100 yards in offense.
Johnson's last game? If this was Kerryon Johnson's last game for Auburn, it wasn't his best performance.
The junior and SEC offensive players of the year gained 71 yards, far below his season average of 120 yards per game, on 22 carries.
“We didn't do a very good job blocking up front,” Malzahn said. “There's a lot of times that -- they had some stunts early on and they got us before we got going. I thought Kerryon had some very good runs, some tough runs, and there wasn't a whole lot of creases like there normally are.”
UCF’s players said in the days before the game that they had to tackle well and make sure that all gaps were covered to keep Johnson from cutting back and taking advantage of open spaces.
UCF played with discipline. Johnson had the team’s longest run (14) and the Tigers finished with just 90 yards rushing on 44 carries.
“That was probably the main stat that was disappointing for me,” Malzahn said.