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When the clock struck 3:30 pm est. on Saturday, the fight for the UCF Knights’ (5-3, 4-3) chance to sneak into the American Athletic Conference Championship Game was on the line.
The No.7 ranked Cincinnati Bearcats (8-0, 6-0) came to the Bounce House in Orlando, Florida with one of the best defenses in the country. While the hosts were six-point underdogs, they jumped out to an early lead but Bearcats’ head coach Luke Fickell managed to regroup his squad and dismount the Knights hopes, 36-33.
UCF head coach Josh Heupel seemed to have a strong game plan going into the game. A lot of the early success could be chalked up to the Knights taking advantage of mistakes by Cincinnati.
The offense varied the snap count to pick up 15 cheap yards in penalties on their first three drives. This helped them strike first with a one-yard Greg McCrae touchdown, which was set up by a 47-yard grab by Jacob Harris. McCrae, Otis Anderson and Bentavious Thompson combined for 97 rushing yards on 24 attempts.
After a Cincy field goal, UCF was forced to punt on their second drive. During the kick, the Knights’ Amari Johnson slid away to avoid contacting the returner on the fair catch. When the punt was muffed, this left Johnson with the ideal position to recover the ball.
After two first downs, quarterback Dillon Gabriel reminded everyone why he is one of the best in the nation at his position when he found Marlon Williams for a six-yard scoring connection to push the lead 14-3.
The Bearcats on the other hand, began to show their claws.
While the UCF defense opened the game living in the opposing backfield, Desmond Ridder rallied his offense from under center. He hit his tight end Josh Whyle for the first Cincinnati touchdown of the night and then rushed for a score two series later to take their first lead of the night on the following drive. Whyle finished the contest team high 81 yards on five catches.
The Bearcats regained the lead before halftime, 19-17.
With an opportunity to expand the deficit by two scores to start the third quarter, the Knights forced the Bearcats to settle for a field goal. UCF, inspired by their defense, went up 25-22 at the end of the third quarter after Williams snagged another touchdown pass from Gabriel and the two-point conversion.
Williams caught eight receptions for 97 yards and two touchdowns. Gabriel concluded the evening going 26-for-49 with 243 yards passing, three touchdowns and an interception.
Sadly for UCF, that final quarter was when disaster struck. Adding insult to injury, it involved two of their top players that aren’t often associated with making mistakes.
Gabriel attempted a pass to Williams that was slightly off-target and bounced off the receiver’s hands and then wobbled into the defensive back’s hands. Cincy took advantage of the turnover after Ridder’s second rushing touchdown of the evening to put them up 29-25.
The Bearcats was able to extend the lead 36-25 with a Ridder touchdown pass to Leonard Taylor. Ridder went 21-for-32 throwing for 338 yards with two touchdowns including two rushing touchdowns.
With 4:27 left, Gabriel connected with Jaylon Robinson for a 10-yard touchdown and a two-point conversion to Jacob Harris that cut the lead to 36-33. They weren’t able to stop Cincinnati after that and lost the game.
With this result, the Knights are officially eliminated from the AAC Championship Game on December 19th while the Bearcats and Tulsa Golden Hurricane clinch their spots.
However, UCF has an opportunity to battle their in-state rivals next week, USF. This would allow them to take one last shot at landing the best bowl game possible. More than that for the players, they are always ready for the chance to crush their rivals in Tampa.
“Burn this one. It’s a quick turnaround. We’ve got a trophy game. Our guys will be ready to go play,” stated UCF head coach Josh Heupel.