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UCF Knights valiant but LSU better in Fiesta Bowl

Matt Zemek

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Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 Fiesta Bowl will be remembered as the game which was debated and litigated about UCF and it’s rightful place before it even started.

It became known in the minutes before kickoff that other LSU defensive starters would not play in this game.

The attrition on LSU’s side counterbalanced the fact that UCF was missing McKenzie Milton, arguably the most important individual player in this game. LSU was missing MORE bodies, but UCF was missing the most SIGNIFICANT body

Mindful of the previous season’s Peach Bowl, in which the familiar song and dance emerged from the SEC about how Auburn wasn’t that motivated against UCF, the 30 minutes before this Fiesta Bowl were filled with a political clash.

LSU and SEC fans were saying, “You can just feel the anti-SEC backlash coming, when in fact this won’t be a commentary on LSU’s attitude. We just didn’t have enough players!”

UCF fans were saying, “It’s the SEC, and we don’t have McKenzie Milton LSU, if it is really good enough, will beat us even without several players.”

None of that even began to touch on the UCF discussion relative to the College Football Playoff. Even without their best player, the Knights were going to be judged by the outsiders without any curve, without any allowance for missing Milton. Such is the cutthroat nature of public debate these days. No leniency, no nuance, no context are afforded when the stakes are high and arguments have to be maintained.

UCF needed to shrug off those outside voices before kickoff. Now that this Fiesta Bowl is over, nothing has changed.

The Knights can’t allow the rest of the country to determine how they should feel after this game and this performance.

LSU was better and deserved to win, but UCF can’t be too upset with its display in Glendale, Arizona.

Yes, LSU won 40-32 and the final stats suggested a bloodbath. The Tigers moved the ball better and racked up far more yards. If LSU had been able to avoid penalties and turnovers in the red zone, this game could have been a disaster for the Knights. As it was, UCF did extremely well to lose by only one score and show that it fundamentally belonged on the same field as LSU.

It is easy to get caught in the trap of comparing this season — and this New Year’s Six bowl — to last season, but last season, UCF had Milton and Shaquem Griffin, two elite players and leaders on both sides of the ball against Auburn.

This year, UCF didn’t have that colossal presence to anchor either its offense or defense. Darriel Mack didn’t play poorly so much as he didn’t have all the tools — at this point in his development and evolution — to pick apart the LSU defense, even in the Tigers’ shorthanded state. Mack was never going to deliver a perfect game. All that reasonably could have been asked of him was to make a few clutch throws in important moments.

He by and large reached that standard. He threw multiple passes which should have gone for touchdowns or really long gains.

His receivers dropped those passes. Those were the most critical shortcomings of the day. Those are the kinds of plays a team regrets. Those plays were there to be made. Yet, on a day when LSU moved the ball easily, and made a lot of mistakes in its own right, and still won without having to sweat too much — leading 40-24 with three minutes left despite leaving points on the field — UCF can’t be too insistent on the idea that it should have won this game.

It COULD have won, but should is a weighty word… and it doesn’t apply here.

Yes, the ridiculous unsportsmanlike conduct penalty levied against UCF when the Knights led 14-3 in the first quarter certainly changed the game… but for every atrocious call against UCF, others were made against LSU.

This was a game in which both teams had legitimate injury-based limitations, and both teams had legitimate gripes about the awful officiating. The long and short of the matter is that LSU won… and UCF made LSU work the full 60 minutes to get the job done.

Given everything UCF was fighting against, the main goal for this team was to deliver an effort which could sustain a sense of pride after another perfect regular season and an enormous collection of achievements under withering pressure.

Only an extreme perfectionist would look at this UCF team — sans its best athlete at college football’s most important position — and think the Knights fell short.

This was a gutsy, resilient, pick-yourself-off-the-mat performance from a lot of different players — a defensive front which kept fighting, an offensive line which had its bad moments but didn’t collapse, and from Mack, who made several great throws but simply wasn’t rewarded (enough) for them.

The national media and fans from other conferences will find it easy to dismiss UCF after this Fiesta Bowl.

The Knights should know they don’t have to give any credence or validity to those voices. They know that in tune with the rest of their splendid 2018 season and this amazing two-year run, they showed they belonged. They showed why they have achieved all they have achieved over the past 24 months.

It doesn’t have to be good enough for anyone outside the UCF locker room; it just has to be good enough for the Knights.

I have no doubt that it is… and that it will be remembered as such 20 years from now.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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