Auburn turned the ball over three times Monday afternoon, and when you do that, it’s hard to beat any team, let alone an undefeated team.
The UCF Knights, champions of the American Athletic Conference, knocked off the Tigers 34-27 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium to cap a perfect 13-0 season.
Along with three turnovers, the UCF defense sacked Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham six times, held the Tigers to only 90 rushing yards, and did not allow the Auburn offense to score a touchdown in the first half.
“Just with us, you know, looking back at the whole game, the first half was very uncharacteristic,” Auburn head coach Gus 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.”
The first half was all defense. On UCF’s second drive of the game, Auburn linebacker Deshaun Davis recovered a fumble which led to a 25-yard field goal by Daniel Carlson to give Auburn a three-point lead.
Carlson, however, would miss his next attempt from 53 yards out to start the second quarter which left the door open for the Knights to tie the game on their next possession.
Stidham’s fumble in the second quarter was recovered and returned to Auburn’s 21-yard line by Tre Neal. Two plays later, UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton escaped pressure and scrambled in from 18 yards out for a touchdown, giving the Knights an early 10-3 lead.
Both teams added a field goal making the score 13-6 at halftime.
Auburn came out of the locker room hitting on all cylinders.
Noah Igbinoghene opened the third quarter with a 72-yard kickoff return and Stidham connected with Hastings on a 26-yard touchdown pass to tie the game 13-13. On Auburn’s next possession, Johnson capped off a 10 play, 82-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown run to give the Tigers a 20-13 lead. UCF answered with a 65-yard touchdown drive to tie the game 20-20 entering the fourth quarter.
UCF took a 27-20 lead as Milton hit Dredrick Snelson on the run for an 8-yard touchdown pass to complete a 59-yard drive. Following a UCF blocked field goal, Stidham was intercepted and returned 45 yards by Chequan Burkett for a touchdown to give the Knights a 34-20 lead late in the fourth quarter.
The Auburn offense struck quickly going 89 yards in six plays in 1:39 to cut the lead to 34-27. UCF missed a 38-yard field goal wide left to give the Tigers a chance, but the Knights defense sealed the upset with an interception in the end zone with 24 seconds left.
The offensive line stumbled all afternoon, failing to give Stidham time to throw and failing to provide any push in the run game. The six sacks were the most Auburn has allowed since giving up 11 in a 14-6 loss at Clemson Sept. 9.
“We didn't do a very good job blocking up front,” Malzahn said. “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.”
Quarterback Jarrett Stidham attempted a season-high 43 passes, completing 28 of them for 331 yards and a touchdown. But he fumbled for a fourth-straight game and the pressure forced him into a two interceptions including a crucial pick-six in the fourth quarter and another in the end zone with 24 seconds left in the game.
Auburn finishes the season 10-4 and Malzahn drops to 1-4 in bowl games.
“I'm hurting for our seniors,” 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.
“But overall, very tough loss, but you've got to give Central Florida credit. They are a very good team.”