Knights Comeback Falls Short in Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The UCF Knights fell just short of another stirring comeback Friday night at Tropicana Field in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl.

UCF trailed North Carolina State 34-13 in the fourth quarter, but mounted a rally before falling 34-27.

A Niklas Sade field goal put the Wolfpack on top by 21 points with 12:37 remaining in the contest. But senior captain Josh Reese, who scored all three of the UCF (9-4) touchdowns, hauled in a 14-yard strike from quarterback Justin Holman less than three minutes later, bringing a huge, partisan UCF crowd back into the game.

When the UCF defense got a three-and-out, the Knights' faithful really began believing. However, a Justin Holman interception slowed the Knights' momentum mid-way through the fourth quarter.

NC State (8-5) had two empty possessions, punting and missing a field goal, but a great deal of time ran off the clock.

The Knights started moving the ball again when they took over with 2:56 remaining. Just 1:12 later, Reese found the end zone a third time on a two-yard pass from Holman. That score pulled UCF within seven points, 34-27.

With 1:44 remaining and no timeouts, the Knights needed to recover an onside kick to have a chance. NC State secured the kick and was able to run out the clock.

Meanwhile, thousands of Knight fans chanted "UCF! UCF! UCF!" and saluted their team as they left the field. An estimated 20,000-plus UCF fans made the short trip and were a part of a near-sellout of 26,675.

"I wouldn't trade UCF for the world," senior captain Terrrance Plummer said after the game. "It's made me a better person and a better player."

UCF head coach George O'Leary said he was disappointed for his team - and his seniors - but was grateful for what they accomplished. He also noted his team's never-say-die persona and attitude.

"They left a high bar to follow and I'm proud of them," O'Leary said. "I would have liked to see them go out tonight with the 10th win. They're disappointed.

"The biggest things is that, basically, you never give up," O'Leary added. "You've got to do that. Then, you fight and you fight. We just let the game get out of whack a little bit."

The Knights opened the scoring on the first possession of the game. A 40-yard Shawn Moffitt field goal put the Knights on top 3-0. But NC State answered on its first possession with an 18-yard halfback pass to Jaylen Samuels to go on top 7-3. The Knights regained the lead 10-7 early in the second quarter. Holman rifled a pass to Reese at the goal line from six yards out.

But it was all Wolfpack for the next two-plus quarters, as NC State outscored the Knights 27-3 to go on top by 21 points. Wolfpack quarterback Jacoby Brissett found a wide open Johnathan Alston for a 37-yard score to make it 14-10. An NC State field goal with 3:16 remaining in the first half pushed the score to 17-10 at halftime. Matt Dayes ran up the middle for a 19-yard score on the opening drive of the second half, putting the Wolfpack on top 24-10. The Knights got three points back after Wolfpack turnover, with Moffitt hitting from 36 yards out to make it 24-13. NC State answered with another Dayes score, as he went untouched up the middle late in the third, making it 31-13.

For the game, the Wolfpack out-gained the Knights 487-373. Brissett was named the game's MVP after passing for 262 yards and rushing for 31 more. Holman threw for 291 yards on 23-of-53 with three scores to pace the UCF offense. Breshad Perriman had nine receptions for 138 yards. Defensively, UCF was led by senior captain Clayton Geathers, who racked up 14 tackles.

Coverage By Bobby Blankenship, Eric DeSalvo, Chip Fontanazza, Brian Ormiston, Andy Seeley and Josh Vinson