ORLANDO — For the University of South Florida Bulls — who displayed spirit, gumption, dominating defense and, believe it or not, offensive touchdowns — it looked like this season’s finest hour.
But ultimately, Friday night became USF’s biggest Knight-mare.
In a revival of the Interstate 4 rivalry, now an annual American Athletic Conference game, the No. 17-ranked University of Central Florida Knights stunned USF 23-20 on a game-winning 52-yard touchdown pass from Blake Bortles to Breshad Perriman with 4:50 remaining.
“It hurts,’’ USF senior running back Marcus Shaw said.
“You could fix a lot of things in this game,’’ USF coach Willie Taggart said. “Bottom line, we had opportunities to win and we didn’t capitalize on them.’’
The Bulls drove to UCF’s 39-yard line, but Mike White’s third-and-6 sideline pass, intended for Chris Dunkley, was intercepted by Knights cornerback Jordan Ozerities and returned deep into USF territory as the UCF-dominated crowd of 45,952 fans began their celebration at Bright House Networks Stadium.
It was a hotly contested game between two schools separated by just 97 miles. For the most part, it was clean competition, at least on the field. USF athletic director Doug Woolard confirmed that his car was vandalized.
The Knights (10-1, 7-0) clinched a share of the AAC title and can lock up an automatic BCS bowl bid by winning at SMU next Saturday.
UCF, which lost four straight games to the Bulls from 2005-08, enjoyed its first football victory against the Bulls.
USF (2-9, 2-5) had an opportunity to take control when freshman safety Nate Godwin intercepted Bortles with 6:42 remaining — USF’s fifth takeaway of the night — giving the Bulls possession at the UCF 28-yard line.
But the Bulls, leading 20-16, couldn’t move and junior place-kicker Marvin Kloss, a Lou Groza Award finalist who had earlier connected from 46 and 42 yards, was wide right on a 51-yard attempt.
The Knights took over and regained the lead when Bortles found Perriman behind freshman cornerback Lamar Robbins down the left sideline.
White, a freshman, was 15 of 34 for 211 yards.
“He didn’t play a perfect ballgame,’’ Taggart said. “He made some mistakes in the ballgame, which he’s going to do.’’
Shaw rushed 21 times for 67 yards — all the positive yardage in the second half — and had a 1-yard run that gave USF a 20-16 lead in the fourth quarter.
“You could feel the breath being taken out of the stands,’’ USF junior wide receiver Andre Davis said.
USF also got a major boost from receiver Chris Dunkley, whose 13-yard reverse on third-and-6 allowed the Bulls to tie the game at 13 in the third quarter.
Meanwhile, Davis had seven receptions for 87 yards and set USF’s single-season record for receiving yards.
USF’s defense limited UCF to 296 yards, including just 77 on the ground.
“At halftime, I’m sure most people didn’t think we would play as well offensively as we did (in the second half),’’ Taggart said. “We kept fighting. Our defense was tremendous.’’
USF trailed 13-6 at halftime and looked like it had squandered major opportunities after failing to fully capitalize on three UCF turnovers in the first half.
Following Storm Johnson’s fumble on a screen pass — it was forced by Johnny Ward and recovered by Kenneth Durden — USF wedged it to the UCF 28-yard line, where Kloss delivered a 46-yard field goal.
After UCF tied it on Shawn Moffitt’s 27-yard field goal, USF mounted a 10-play, 51-yard drive, which featured completions of 20 yards to Sean Price and 30 yards to Davis. It stalled at the UCF 24, where Kloss hooked in a 42-yard field goal, allowing the Bulls to regain a 6-3 advantage.
The Bulls wasted their chance to take early control after Robbins intercepted Bortles at the UCF 33.
Again driving, USF reached the UCF 7 and had third-and-1. Shaw lost 1. The Bulls, who entered the game with a national-low nine offensive touchdowns, decided to go for it. But on fourth-and-2, White mishandled the center snap and UCF took over.
“I never second-guess that (decision to go for it),’’ Taggart said. “I thought our guys were going to do it.’’
The Knights mounted a 12-play, 92-yard drive, taking a 10-6 lead on Bortles’ 8-yard pass to tight end Justin Tukes. And that advantage was padded to 13-6 when Moffitt converted a 24-yard field goal with six seconds remaining in the half.
But any thoughts of UCF being in control were premature.
USF answered with one of its better second-half efforts this season. The game was on.
And USF-UCF was a rivalry again.