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LSU ends UCF’s winning streak in the Narratives, er, Fiesta Bowl

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In a game loaded with Group of 5 vs. Power 5 story lines, the banged-up Tigers were too much for UCF and its backup QB.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Louisiana State vs Central Florida Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes you just run out of magic tricks. Two years after UCF’s last loss, and in a Fiesta Bowl more noteworthy for who wasn’t playing as for who was, the Knights finally got a taste of defeat, falling 40-32 to LSU in a testy game.

UCF lost star quarterback McKenzie Milton to a severe leg injury in the Knights’ regular season finale against USF, but they kept chugging along, putting away their rivals, and then — after spotting Memphis a 17-point lead in the AAC title game — going on a 35-3 run to extend their winning streak to 25 games and qualify for another New Year’s Six bowl.

Freshman Darriel Mack Jr., Milton’s replacement, was able to put up big numbers against Memphis, but facing LSU ended up too tall a task.

By the second quarter of the Fiesta Bowl, LSU was missing basically its entire regular defensive backfield due to injury, planned absence, and a couple of targeting penalties. But the Tigers, who ranked 14th in Def. S&P+ in the regular season, still had a prepared coordinator in Dave Aranda, and their defensive front (also missing some players) overwhelmed UCF in a way that Auburn’s couldn’t in last year’s Peach Bowl.

The result: UCF gained only 250 total yards, its lowest total since 2016, and LSU put up 555. The Tigers’ offense came ready for a shootout — Joe Burrow passed for a career-high 394 yards and four touchdowns — but unlike most of the last two seasons, UCF couldn’t keep up.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Louisiana State vs Central Florida
LSU head coach Ed Orgeron
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Winning streaks always end, but despite getting dominated statistically, UCF didn’t go down without a fight.

The Knights gave themselves a shot with a gorgeous touchdown pass from Mack to Gabriel Davis late in the first half, and Davis dropped another sure score in the third quarter that would have made it a three-point game.

Because of pressure, Mack didn’t have enough time to consistently punish LSU’s patchwork secondary, but even with a 2-to-1 yardage disadvantage, UCF scored with 2:24 left to make it a 40-32 game. They came within inches of recovering a gorgeous onside kick as well.

In the end, the superior team won. Of that, there was no doubt. LSU had too much for the Knights up front, and LSU receivers had a field day with UCF’s secondary. UCF might have pulled out a win with Milton playing, sure, but LSU would have likely dominated even further had its actual starting defense been available.

This game was a Narratives Bowl of sorts.

UCF has spent the last 12 months yelling about an unfair playoff system, going so far as to claim a share of last year’s national title after not getting a CFP invitation. And let’s be honest: if winning 25 games in a row — including a 2017 win over an Auburn team that had beaten both Alabama and Georgia, plus a 31-point win over 2018 ACC coastal champion Pitt — doesn’t get you anywhere close to the College Football Playoff, the system probably does need to be tweaked (or in this case, expanded) a bit.

Still, with a chance to further prove themselves equal to a meaty, athletic SEC foe, the Knights fell short, at least briefly proving naysayers right about their worthiness.

And to say the least, when you yell as loudly and as frequently as UCF and its fans have over the last year, folks are going to enjoy it when you finally lose.

Narratives aside, though, both teams acquitted themselves well.

LSU learned about quite a few young defenders. Sophomore Patrick Queen had a pair of tackles for loss to complement junior end Rashard Lawrence’s huge day, and safety JaCoby Stevens, asked to take on a huge role, had 7.5 tackles, a half-sack, and the game-sealing interception.

The Tigers also built a little bit of confidence for Burrow and a receiving corps that struggled with inconsistency in 2018. Freshman Ja’Marr Chase caught six balls for 93 yards and a touchdown, sophomore Justin Jefferson had four for 87 and two scores, and juniors Stephen Sullivan and Derrick Dillon each had catches of 40-plus yards.

LSU boasted the athleticism advantage they should have had against a team with talent but obvious recruiting disadvantages, and now they have a 10th win for 2018 as well.

UCF, meanwhile, held LSU backs Nick Brossette and Clyde Edwards-Helaire to just 3.8 yards per carry and forced quarterback Joe Burrow to beat them with his arm, and Burrow obliged. LSU consistently harassed Mack, sacking him five times in 35 pass attempts, but Mack kept his head and made plays late in both halves to keep the Knights within shouting distance.

Mack’s poise and UCF’s obvious team speed suggest that UCF will likely remain the class of the AAC (and therefore one of the favorites for another NY6 bid) in 2019, even if or when Milton redshirts to further recover. Meaning we could have a whole new batch of narratives later on.