By FRED GOODALL / The Associated Press
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — No. 25 Central Florida couldn’t protect its first national ranking. It wasn’t even close against Southern Mississippi.
Austin Davis threw for 264 yards and matched a career high with four touchdown passes for Southern Miss, which tightened the race for the Conference USA East division title with a 31-21 victory that surely will bounce UCF out of the Top 25.
“We’re disappointed in the outcome,” Knights coach George O’Leary said. “We’ve just got to regroup and get ready for the next game.”
Davis overcame an early two-touchdown deficit with scoring passes of 5 yards to Johdrick Morris and 23 yards to Kelvin Bolden that put Southern Miss (7-3, 4-2) up 17-14 at halftime. Bolden’s second TD reception broke the game open early in the fourth quarter.
“Beating a ranked team, in their stadium … that’s hard to do, but we took it as a challenge,” Davis said. “We could easily have packed it in when we were down 14-0, but we didn’t. We fought back, got a few turnovers from our defense and really dominated the game from there.”
Jeff Godfrey threw for 190 yards and two TDs for UCF (7-3, 5-1), which had averaged 41.4 points during a five-game winning streak that vaulted the Knights into the Top 25 for the first time in the school’s 31-year football history.
The true freshman is one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks. His ability to run — as well as throw with accuracy — is one of the reasons the Knights seemingly emerged from nowhere to earn a spot in the rankings.
Southern Miss did a terrific job of containing the speedy Godfrey, limiting him to 6 net yards rushing on 12 attempts.
“The No. 1 thing we had to do was cage him and contain him. We wanted to put pressure on him, but the big thing was to keep him from running,” Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora said. “I don’t remember too many times when he broke out and got off a long run on us.”
UCF started its program in Division III in 1979 and has always operated in the shadows of the state’s Big Three — Florida, Florida State and Miami — and even close geographical rival South Florida, a former CUSA member that left the league for the Big East five years ago.
The Knights have raised their profile in seven seasons under O’Leary, the former Georgia Teach coach who went 0-11 upon his arrival in 2004 but has since led the Knights to four winning records and three bowl appearances.
Davis completed 21 of 34 passes and Southern Miss did not turn the ball over, keeping itself in contention for the East title and a spot in the CUSA championship game on Dec. 4. UCF fell into a tie for first place in the division with East Carolina, one game ahead of the Golden Eagles with two to play.
“There has never been a point this season where I didn’t think these kids didn’t believe in themselves,” Fedora said. “The two losses we had were one-point losses and could have gone the other way. … No one cried about it, we just moved on.”
Southern Miss fell 44-43 to East Carolina and 50-49 in two overtimes to UAB within a three-week span.
It looked like Fedora’s team might be in for a long day when UCF scored on its first two possessions, with Ronnie Weaver racing 52 yards to set up Godfrey’s 1-yard touchdown run and then breaking a 38-yarder during a nine-play, 99-yard march that Godfrey finished with a 4-yard TD pass to Brian Watters.
Instead of bowing their heads, the Golden Eagles battled back.
“Nobody blinked. Nobody panicked. We had adversity and found our way out,” Fedora said. “This is the kind of football we envisoned at Southern Miss. It was fast, it was smart and it was physical.”
The Golden Eagles began their comeback with Danny Hrapmann’s 31-yard field goal.
Later, Davis threw a 10-yard scoring pass to DeAndre Brown to open a 24-14 lead in the third quarter, then dumped UCF into a 17-point hole with a 26-yard TD throw to Bolden after UCF wasted an opportunity to trim its deficit to seven when Jamie Boyle missed a 30-yard field goal try on the second play of the fourth quarter.
Godfrey completed 16 of 25 passes and was intercepted twice. His 40-yard TD pass to Jamar Newsome cut the Southern Miss lead to 10, but the Golden Eagles recovered an onside kick and ran the final 4:21 off the clock.