The two highest-scoring teams in college football this season played the highest-scoring game in the history of conference championships Saturday afternoon in Orlando.
And one of them had to lose.
UCF junior Tre Neal intercepted Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson
on a third-down play in the second overtime to clinch the American Athletic Conference championship and keep the Knights undefeated (12-0). The victory will send UCF to the Peach Bowl on New Year's Day, even as its coach, Scott Frost, is headed to Nebraska according to reports by ESPN. (The report was released during overtime of Saturday's telecast on ABC.) The loss drops Memphis to 10-2 on the season and means the Tigers will play in a second-tier bowl game, though it could well be the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on December 30th.
The game featured four lead changes, with the Tigers twice erasing double-digit deficits. Down 24-14 in the second quarter, Memphis forced turnovers on three consecutive Knight possessions and scored after each to take a 31-24 lead into halftime.
UCF scored touchdowns on its first three possessions of the second half, then added a field early in the fourth quarter to take a 48-34 lead with just under 14 minutes to play. But sophomore tailback Tony Pollard
scampered 66 yards for one touchdown and Ferguson hit senior wideout Anthony Miller
for a 10-yard score (Miller's second of the game and 38th of his brilliant career) to tie the game at 48 with 4:13 to play.
Freshman kicker Riley Patterson
missed a 51-yard field goal attempt with less than a minute left that could have won the championship for Memphis. (A previous 46-yard attempt was blocked but nullified by a delay-of-game penalty against the Tigers.)
Memphis scored on the first possession of overtime, Ferguson connecting with Miller from 15 yards. UCF answered with a two-yard run by Adrian Killins.
The Knights found the end zone again on the first possession of the second overtime period, this time a one-yard run by Otis Anderson that proved to be the game-winner when Neal picked off Ferguson.
The offensive numbers were eye-popping, even for these two explosive teams. UCF gained 726 yards, the most allowed by Memphis all season, while the Tigers gained 753, their most all season. UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton — the AAC Offensive Player of the Year — passed for 494 yards and five touchdowns (but tossed three interceptions). Ferguson — along with Milton, named first-team All-AAC — passed for 471 yards and four touchdowns, extending his record for touchdowns in a season to 36. Miller caught 14 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns (giving him 92 catches and 1,407 yards for the season). Sophomore tight end Sean Dykes
caught three passes for 161 yards, while a pair of Tiger sophomores had 100 yards on the ground: Darrell Henderson
with 109 and Patrick Taylor
with 107. Tony Pollard
rushed for 71 yards on just three carries and had 72 more yards on six receptions.
Memphis will learn its bowl destination Sunday and this year's seniors will become the first class of Tigers to play in four bowl games. That destination could be Birmingham or Hawaii (where the AAC has bowl affiliations) or it could mean a return home to the Liberty Bowl, as the SEC is short on bowl-eligible teams, opening what could be a welcome slot for the highest-scoring team the U of M has ever produced.