Auburn's Eli Stove (12) / Josh McBrayer
ATLANTA – It was a rough start for both the University of Central Florida (UCF) and Auburn University to open the 50th Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The Knights won the toss but were quickly forced into a three-and-out by a swarming Tiger defense and were forced to put the ball. Following a good Knights punt, the Tigers returned the favor and went three-and-out, thanks in part to a timely UCF sack of Jarrett Stidham.
Auburn’s defense came up big again, this time forcing a fumble that was recovered by the Tigers. Auburn took advantage of the turnover, marching the ball down to the UCF 8 where Daniel Carlson capped the nine-play, 44-yard drive with a 25-yard chip shot field goal to give his team the 3-0 lead with 7:01 left in the first.
The Auburn defense continued to impose its will on the Knights’ offense, keeping it in check and forcing the second three-and-out in three possessions. Not to be outdone, the UCF defense showed what it was made of, sacking Stidham for the third time on Auburn’s next possession. This put the Tigers deep behind the chains where they had to settle for a 53-yard field goal attempt by Carlson that went wide right and gave the ball back to UCF.
Riding the wave of momentum created by the missed field goal, UCF went to work. Starting from their own 36, the Knights marched the ball down the field with confidence. They were able to convert a crucial third-and-10 to keep their drive alive, but the Tiger defense was stingy and locked down inside the red zone. UCF had to settle for a 35-yard field goal by Matthew Wright to knot the game at 3-3 with 11:11 left to play in the first half.
Auburn’s next drive ended in disaster when Stidham coughed up the ball at the UCF 49 where it was scooped up by Tre Neal at his own 43. He returned the fumble to the Auburn 21. It took the Knights a mere 47 seconds to capitalize as QB McKenzie Milton on back-to-back rushes scored the game’s first touchdown, from 18 yards out. The PAT was true, and the UCF Knights took a 10-3 lead over the Auburn Tigers with 8:51 left in the half.
After trading punts with the Knights, Auburn found themselves with the ball back in the latter stages of the second quarter. The Tigers put together an impressive 15-play drove that covered 62 yards, but unfortunately for Auburn, they were unable to get the ball in the end zone and had to settle for a 46-yard field goal off the right foot of Carlson. Just as Auburn looked as if it had picked up a little momentum heading to the half, UCF responded with a six-play drive that covered 42 yards and ended in a Wright 45-yard field goal to put the Knights on top 13-6 heading to the halftime break.
Auburn received the ball to open up the second half of play, and the Tigers made the most of it. Noah Igbinoghene took the opening kick and returned it 72 yards to the UCF 26. Two plays later Stidham connected with Will Hastings for the 26-yard touchdown strike. Carlson booted through the PAT and the Tigers quickly tied the game at 13-all. The Auburn defense fed off its offense and came up with a big stop to put the ball back in Stidham’s hands, and he went right back to work. He found three different receivers on the 10-play, 82-yard drive, but the biggest play was not a pass, it was a rush. A Kerryon Johnson rush to be exact. Johnson took the ball from Stidham and blasted up the middle for a 4-yard touchdown run. Carlson’s PAT was good, and Auburn took the lead 20-13, its first lead since 7:01 in the first.
Two possessions later, UCF answered the Auburn score with a score of its own. The Knights started on their own 35 and marched the ball down the field and ended the seven-play, 65-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown pass from Milton to Otis Anderson. The Wright PAT was good, and the UFC Knights tied the game at 20-20 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Knights started the fourth with the ball and they did not squander their opportunity. They chewed up 3:17 off the clock to go 57 yards on eight plays. They finished with an 8-yard touchdown from Milton to Dredrick Snelson. The PAT put UCF on top 27-20 with 11:36 left to play in the game.
Auburn started its next drive in promising fashion but a costly interception that was returned 45 yards for a touchdown by Chequan Burkett put the Knights up by 14. Down but with a puncher’s chance, Auburn quickly moved the ball down the field in six plays to cover 89 yards and only use 1:39. The drive was capped by a 12-yard touchdown run by Eli Stove to make the score 34-27 in favor of UCF.
UCF had the opportunity to put the game away with a field goal, but it was missed wide right and gave Auburn an opening. The Tigers started their drive with no timeouts and 2:18 left on the clock. Stidham marched Auburn down the field, all the way to the UCF 21, but an ill-timed pass toward the end zone while he was under duress proved to be the finisher the Knights were looking for as Antwan Collier was there waiting. The pass came to rest in his hands and the 2018 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl trophy will travel back to Florida with the undefeated UCF Knights.
Final score: UCF 34, Auburn 27
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