ORLANDO — The "War on I-4" commenced on a damp, cool afternoon beneath gray skies. Meteorologically, it was a bleak Friday.
It ultimately faded to black for USF, but not before senior quarterback Quinton Flowers delivered the latest in a volume of breathtaking dual-threat exhibitions.
Flowers set USF single-game passing yardage (503) and total-yardage records (605) before a late special-teams breakdown and turnover doomed the Bulls.
Before an announced Spectrum Stadium crowd of 47,129, No. 13 UCF escaped with a 49-42 victory. Mike Hughes' 95-yard touchdown on a kickoff return with 1:28 to go put UCF ahead, and a fumble by tight end Mitchell Wilcox on the ensuing Bulls possession ended their last-gasp comeback try.
UCF (11-0, 8-0) hosts Memphis in next Saturday's American Athletic Conference title game, where a berth in a New Year's Day bowl game almost certainly will be at stake. The Group of Five conference champion ranked highest by the College Football Playoff committee earns a berth in a New Year's Six game. UCF was 15th in the latest CFP rankings.
USF (9-2, 6-2) is headed to a second-tier bowl, possibly in Birmingham, Ala., or Annapolis, Md.
Flowers became only the sixth player in Division I-A history to record at least 40 rushing and 60 passing touchdowns in his career. He single-handedly outgained UCF, which totaled 561 yards.
He now has 11,385 total yards, a Bulls career record.
Flowers' top target Friday: 235-pound slot receiver Tyre McCants, who had established a USF single-game receiving yardage record (six catches, 210 yards) by halftime. McCants finished with nine receptions for 227 yards.
In what would serve as a harbinger of a dizzying opening half, McCants took a short Flowers pass on the game's third play and dashed for a 47-yard touchdown, dragging a Knights defender into the end zone.
UCF answered by scoring on its first three possessions (two of which were assisted by a Bulls personal-foul penalty) and took a 21-7 lead.
The Bulls, employing six and seven defensive backs at a time in an effort to negate the Knights' speed, forced four consecutive Knights punts. UCF's scoreless second quarter was only the third period all season in which it had failed to score.
Meantime, USF mounted scoring drives of 91 and 84 yards, capped by Flowers scoring passes to Temi Alaka (20 yards) and Wilcox (21 yards), to cut its deficit to 21-20 by halftime.
The ebb and flow spilled over into the second half, with the teams trading touchdowns before cornerback Ronnie Hoggins intercepted a McKenzie Milton pass over the middle at the UCF 40. Four plays later, Flowers scampered up the middle for a 24-yard touchdown, giving the Bulls a 34-28 lead.
It marked the first time UCF has trailed in the second half all season.
The Knights re-took the lead when Milton, scrambling to his right, found sophomore Dredrick Snelson isolated behind the Bulls secondary for a 35-yard touchdown with 7:33 to go. His 23-yard touchdown toss to freshman Otis Anderson, on a short screen pass, gave the Knights a 42-34 lead.
Flowers wasn't done. His 83-yard touchdown pass to Darnell Salomon with 1:41 to go cut USF's deficit to 42-40. On the two-point attempt, he scrambled right, then threw across his body to D'Ernest Johnson, who was quarantined in the left corner of the end zone.
Hughes then dashed his way into UCF lore on the ensuing kick.
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.