While the “War on I-4” lacks longevity and pedigree in the annals of college football lore, it possesses pettiness, animosity and offensive firepower in spades.
UCF (8-3, 5-2 AAC) visits South Florida (1-10, 0-7) at 7 p.m. Saturday in the final installment of this Sunshine State showdown for the foreseeable future. The Knights will depspanrt the Americspann Athletic Conference officially in July, ending a 10-year affiliation, for greener pastures in the Big 12.
With the move, UCF will only have three non-conference slots to fill on its schedule each season. The schedule is fully booked through 2025, according to FBSchedules.com.
STATE OF FOOTBALL: The Spurrier-Bowden dspanys spanre long gone for Gspantors, ‘Noles
SUNSHINE SHOCKER:Three tspankespanwspanys from Nspanvy’s upset win over UCF
South Florida, meanwhile, has just one open date through the 2028 season. The Bulls will face Alabama, Florida and Miami, among others, in future campaigns but not the Knights.
“If you look at any of the big-time schools, they have their big rivalries and they’ve had them for decades,” former USF quarterback Matt Grothe said. “It defines what college football is all about. I think it definitely should continue in the future if there’s any way possible.”
Mike Hughes, a former cornerback and return specialist at UCF, added: “I’m sad to see it go, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. It’s safe to say it’s a tradition. It’s a rivalry like no other. War on I-4 says a lot for itself. Those emotions building up to that week, it’s always kind of personal.”
UCF holds a 7-6 edge in the series, claiming victories in seven of the last nine meetings. Should USF win to even the all-time mark, it would also spoil the Knights’ chances of appearing in the AAC’s championship game next weekend.
Before bidding farewell to the “War on I-4,” let’s first reflect upon its five most memorable moments over the last two decades.
2005 — Bulls draw first blood in front of big crowd
UCF made the jump from the NCAA’s Division II football ranks to Division I-AA (now known as the Football Championship Subdivision) in 1990. Seven years later, USF got its program off the ground — and quickly started winning under head coach Jim Leavitt.
Fans of both schools would have to wait nearly a decade for the inaugural football version of the War on I-4, though. Political and media pressure mounted; State Sen. Lee Constantine wrote — and later withdrew — a legislative amendment in 2001, forcing the schools to schedule one another. UCF President John Hitt and USF President Judy Genshaft reached a verbal agreement the following year, and the two schools finally agreed to an initial two-year deal in 2003 for the ’05 and ’06 seasons.
“There was a war of words before the first football game was ever played,” said Marc Daniels, UCF’s director of broadcasting since 1995. “The first in ’05 … there was such a wave of momentum about playing the game.”
UCF and USF settled their differences on the field for the first time at Raymond James Stadium in 2005 — in front of an announced crowd of 45,139, the second-largest in USF history at the time.
The Bulls struck first and never looked back. Andre Hall ran for 155 yards and two touchdowns, and Pat Julmiste accounted for another pair of scores in a 31-14 victory.
UCF rushed for just 45 yards as a team, and failed to score until the midway point of the third quarter. Joe Burnett’s 60-yard punt return set up Steven Moffett’s 4-yard TD run.
2008 — USF buries UCF in the original final chapter
It was not long ago when the roles in this rivalry were reversed.
The Bulls dominated the series, and played in the more prestigious conference — the Big East, as opposed to Conference USA. USF’s administration, most notably and infamously then-university president Judy Genshaft, sought to leave UCF in the dust and move on to bigger, better things.
Still, there was matter of business to attend to, a trip to the Bounce House in the second week of the 2008 season. USF, ranked No. 17 in the country, held a 24-10 lead with three minutes to play in regulation. But the Knights mounted a stunning rally as Michael Greco threw touchdowns to Corey Rabazinski and Rocky Ross within a 66-second span to tie the game.
Grothe delivered in overtime, tossing a 25-yard touchdown pass to Taurus Johnson on 3rd-and-10. USF stopped Greco a yard short on a fourth-down scramble to clinch victory and remain, at the time, unbeaten against UCF (4-0).
In those days, Grothe described the rivalry as “pure hatred.” A handful of Knights fans obtained his phone number in the days leading up to the 2008 game, resulting in several hundred missed calls and texts.
“It wasn’t even just calls from UCF people. It was a primetime ESPN game. It was all over the TV for four or five hours.” Grothe said. “I was like, ‘Who are these people calling me?’ Some were joking about it, and some were ruthless.”
Grothe ran through the end zone and cupped his hand to his ear after throwing a 27-yard touchdown pass to Cedric Hill in the second half. That wasn’t the only bit of taunting to occur in the UCF end zone that night.
Two Bulls defenders and the school’s mascot, Rocky, carried a golden shovel — meant to symbolize the team’s mantra of, “Just keep digging,” Grothe said — into the end zone after the conclusion of overtime. However, it’s still perceived in the UCF community as a ceremonial burial of the Knights — and perhaps an unbeknownst bit of a bad karma, in hindsight.
USF signed a five-year contract with Miami, and proceeded to lose four of those games. Meanwhile, UCF positioned itself to join the upstart American Athletic Conference in 2013 as the Big East split and later focused primarily on basketball.
2013 — Knights finally break through en route to the Fiesta Bowl
Since reuniting as conference rivals, UCF has earned at least a share of the AAC title on four separate occasions and won two New Year’s Six bowl games. South Florida has accomplished no such feat.
The 2013 season marked the official changing of the guard.
Led by Blake Bortles, UCF was 9-1 and ranked 17th in the country entering rivalry week. Yet, USF — at 2-8 and playing for little more than pride — capitalized on five Knights turnovers and snatched a 20-16 lead in the opening minute of the fourth quarter.
Bortles, pressured all night and picked off twice, pumped and fired a 52-yard strike to fellow future first-round pick Breshad Perriman for the go-ahead touchdown with 4:50 left. Jordan Ozerities sealed the win, and a share of the AAC title, by picking off Mike White in the final 90 seconds.
The Knights braved an ice storm the following week against SMU to secure a BCS bid — the last handed automatically to the AAC’s champion — and handled Baylor 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl as a 17-point underdog.
2017 — Mike Hughes’ ‘Reservation for six in the Cabanas’
Unquestionably, the signature game in this series occurred on Black Friday of 2017.
“It’s a blur. I’m going to have to go back and watch the replay to remember what happened down the stretch there,” then-UCF head coach Scott Frost said.
The Knights and Bulls, with a combined win-loss record of 19-1, traded blows for four quarters in a back-and-forth offensive barrage, a game that featured 1,186 total yards from scrimmage, five lead changes and 91 points.
Quinton Flowers picked apart the Knights’ defense, throwing for a school-record 503 yards and four touchdowns. Tyre McCants caught nine passes for 227 yards and one score in which he quite literally dragged a would-be tackler across the goal line.
Flowers stunned a raucous UCF crowd with 1:41 left, seeing Darnell Solomon streaking down the middle of the field uncovered for an 83-yard touchdown, and then D’Ernest Johnson alone in the back corner of the end zone for a two-point conversion to knot the game up at 42 apiece.
No sooner than the Bounce House had gone quiet, did it explode on the ensuing kickoff. Hughes found a lane, made a sharp cutback at full speed and blazed 95 yards the other way to put UCF back in front, 49-42.
“We ran the same exact return on the very first kickoff, and I almost creased it. I knew once I was getting the ball one last time that I would have one last chance at a game-changing play,” said Hughes, a defensive back for the Detroit Lions.
“It’s probably one of the best nights of my life. … I was looking to house it. Some of the special teams rules were different. When he kicked it short, I knew I had a chance to go to the house. I cut across the grain, and it was me against the kicker. That’s what you dream of. I wasn’t going to let him catch me.”
Daniels made one of the more memorable calls of his 28-year tenure, one that Knights fans fondly remember to this day, when he quipped that Hughes made “reservations for six in the Cabanas.”
“One time, and one time only,” Daniels said. “It was spur of the moment. I would never use it again out of respect for Mike Hughes and for that game.
“I’m honored by that, and I think it’s great when people come up to me and say where they were for moments like that. That’s the benefit of me sticking around for 28 years.”
And it was the Knights’ defense that put the game away. Richie Grant punched the football free from USF tight end Mitch Wilcox with 39 seconds left, and the Bulls 45 yards away from another potential plot twist.
If the 2013 game served as a changing of the guard, the 2017 edition launched UCF into a different stratosphere as far as national recognition. The game drew 4.6 million viewers on ABC, and a seismic 3.2 rating by AAC standards.
2018 — McKenzie Milton’s catastrophic knee injury ends UCF career
Bidding for back-to-back undefeated seasons and conference titles under Josh Heupel, UCF harbored College Football Playoff aspirations ahead of its 2018 trip to Raymond James Stadium.
But the narrative shifted dramatically early in the second quarter as Milton, the team’s leader, suffered a catastrophic knee injury after being tackled on an option keeper. The hit, a collision with USF cornerback Mazzi Wilkins, resulted in a knee dislocation where the thigh bone and lower leg bone were completely dislocated, Milton’s orthopedic surgeon told Matt Murschel of the Orlando Sentinel in August 2021.
In his own words for an April 2019, ESPN story, Milton said doctors felt no pulse in his leg either on the field or in the locker room. Upon arriving at Tampa General Hospital, he learned he had torn the popliteal artery and required immediate surgery to restore blood flow to the bottom of his leg.
Milton suffered nerve damage and tore two ligaments in the knee, though his ACL remained intact. Doctors told him the damage more closely resembled that of an automobile or motorcycle crash than a football injury.
In total, Milton said he required nine separate surgeries. He missed all of the ’19 and ’20 seasons as Dillon Gabriel, a fellow graduate of Mililani High School in Kapolei, Hawaii, blossomed into the Knights’ starter.
That play proved to be Milton’s last for UCF, ending a tenure that included 27 wins in 35 career starts. He entered the NCAA’s transfer portal and resumed his football career at Florida State, playing for Mike Norvell, who coached against him several times while in charge of Memphis.
Milton played in six games for the Seminoles last fall, completing 58.3% of his passes for 775 yards with three touchdowns and six interceptions. He retired from football shortly after going undrafted, telling Brandon Kravitz of 96.9 The Game in a recent interview that he did not have a particular interest in playing for the XFL’s Orlando Guardians.
“It would have to be an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Milton said. “But, truthfully, I feel like the only thing that would get me back on the field is if there is an opportunity to play in the NFL.
“I feel like I performed at the highest level in college and I felt like I was amongst the best, if not the best, when I was at my best. And it was just evident during the draft that I wasn’t going to get a look.”
UCF pulled away for a routine 38-10 win as Darriel Mack Jr. assumed the QB duties. Mack shrugged off two early turnovers the following week against Memphis to throw for 348 yards and two touchdowns as UCF defended its AAC title, and eventually earned an invitation to the Fiesta Bowl — a game it lost to Joe Burrow’s surging LSU team, one that would be crowned national champs a year later.