UCF vows to ‘be back stronger’ after streak ends

GLENDALE, Ariz. — A few UCF players responded with tears. Others with silence. And still more with looks of satisfaction.

The scene in the Knights’ locker room offered a full range of emotions Tuesday after their 40-32 loss to LSU in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl that snapped a 25-game winning streak for the upstart out of the American Athletic Conference.

“I’m proud of these guys for the way we came out to play with LSU,” linebacker Nate Evans said. “I mean, it’s LSU, a team we should never be on the field with, according to higher people.”

No. 8 UCF, in finishing 12-1 after a 13-0 run last year that ended with a win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl, jumped to a 14-3 lead over the 11th-ranked Tigers but trailed 24-21 at the half. LSU built its edge to 16 points, settling for two field goals in the fourth quarter as the high-powered Knights offense sputtered.

A 75-yard drive and two-point conversion pulled UCF within one score in the final three minutes. It forced a punt, needing to go 88 yards in the final 39 seconds before freshman QB Darriel Mack Jr. was intercepted by LSU safety JaCoby Stevens with 20 seconds left.

“This team is a team full of fighters, from the seniors to redshirts,” said Mack, filling in since Nov. 23 for injured star McKenzie Milton. “We had a chance, and we couldn’t pull it out.

“But I can guarantee that we’re going to remember this feeling. We’re going to be back stronger.”

Milton, who finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy balloting as a sophomore in 2017, sat in the locker next to Mack after the defeat. He used crutches to walk. The junior, after undergoing multiple surgeries since he suffered a serious injury to his right knee while playing rival USF, has declined interview requests and did so again Tuesday.

His presence remained strong with the team, though.

“He’ll definitely be back,” Mack said. “He’s a soldier.”

LSU sacked Mack five times and held the Knights to 250 yards — nearly 300 fewer than their per-game average, which ranked third nationally in the regular season. Still, UCF, with its late touchdown, reached 30 points for the 26th consecutive game, a record in the AP poll era dating to 1936.

The Tigers had allowed 30 points in regulation just once in 22 games before Tuesday.

“Looking at where we came from and how far we’ve come and how far we have to go, I mean, this is just one stepping stone,” senior defensive end Titus Davis said.

Emotions ran high early in the Fiesta Bowl. UCF was penalized nine times in the first half and 12 times for 104 yards in the game. LSU was flagged 14 times for 145 yards. The opening 30 minutes included three ejections — UCF safety Kyle Gibson and LSU safety Grant Delpit for targeting and LSU cornerback Terrence Alexander for throwing a punch.

UCF coach Josh Heupel said the Knights “did some things uncharacteristic of us early in the game that hurt.”

But they fought, he said.

“Obviously, everyone in the locker room is really upset,” tight end Michael Colubiale said. “We haven’t lost a game since 2016. The sophomore class hasn’t even lost a game since they’ve been here.”

Junior running back Adrian Killins Jr. said the outcome in Arizona only strengthened his resolve that UCF has arrived on the big stage.

“We’ve been doing that for two years straight,” he said. “At the end of the day, we can play with anyone.”

LSU linebacker Devin White, an All-American and this season’s Butkus Award winner, disagreed.

“As far as physicality, their offense, it was mainly speed, wanting to get to the outside. It really wasn’t a trench game,” he said. “I don’t really think they could play in the SEC week in and week out with the style of play they play with.”

LSU safety Eric Monroe apparently concurred that the Knights have an outsized opinion of themselves, holding up a sign after the game that mocked UCF for declaring itself national champion following last season’s undefeated campaign.

Outside the locker room, UCF athletic director Danny White spoke of his pride in the Knights’ run. White said he believed, in part because of UCF’s winning streak, “the ball is kind of rolling downhill” on work to expand the College Football Playoff.

This Fiesta Bowl did nothing to deter that momentum, White said.

“Our team deserved to play in the playoff with what they accomplished, both this year and last year,” White said. “A four-team playoff isn’t an adequate postseason. I think most people are starting to realize that.

“We were going to lose a game eventually. That’s the nature of sport. I certainly can’t say I’m disappointed in a team that won 25 straight football games.”

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