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UCF Throwback Classics Episode 9: UCF’s First Conference Championship over Tulsa in 2007

The Knights win their first football conference title as running back Kevin Smith runs wild and sets an NCAA record

UCF Celebrates their first Conference USA Championship

In our ninth episode of UCF Throwback Classics, it’s the UCF Knights defeating the Tulsa Golden Hurricane and winning their first conference championship in the 2007 Conference USA Championship Game. In this game, UCF has their revenge for the loss in the 2005 Conference USA Championship Game against Tulsa. Kevin Smith goes wild and sets an NCAA record as the Knights win 44-25. It was definitely the program’s biggest win at the time and underrated in the pantheon of all-time UCF games.

You always remember your first.

2007 was a special year for UCF. It was the year UCF opened Bright House Networks Stadium on the school’s campus after playing at the Citrus Bowl for the entirety of the football team’s history. The school also opened up the new UCF Arena. While the stadium’s first game against Texas gets most of the attention, one could make the argument that this game was the better game on a multitude of levels.

This matchup was about UCF running back Kevin Smith vs Tulsa quarterback Paul Smith. Both players were offensive machines. Kevin Smith ran for 100 yards or more in 11 of 12 games coming in and four of those games were over 200 yards. Paul Smith threw for over 300 yards in all 12 games he played. Each player would add another of their respective accomplishments to their season. Both players were also chasing NCAA records. Kevin Smith was chasing Barry Sanders’ single-season rushing yards record and Marcus Allen’s single-season carries record. Paul Smith was chasing Colt Brennan’s total touchdown record that was only set the season prior. Behind Smith the QB, Tulsa had the top-ranked offense yardage-wise.

It’s worth noting that Tulsa’s offensive coordinator is none other than Gus Malzahn, UCF’s current head coach. Also, this was the second matchup of the season between UCF and Tulsa. The Knights beat up on the Golden Hurricane the first time 44-23.

UCF would begin with the ball and have a three and out. Tulsa would return the favor. Tulsa quarterback Paul Smith would punt it from time to time and would botch a 14-yard punt. The Knights would capitalize and get on the scoreboard first with a 28-yard Michael Torres field goal. During this drive, Kevin Smith had his first big run of the day, ripping a 35-yard scamper down the sideline, barely stepping out of bounds in the Golden Hurricane redzone. The Tulsa offense would start moving forward before a huge 13-yard sack by Bruce Miller ended the drive. Joe Burnett would return the punt 83 yards for a touchdown, giving UCF a 10-0 lead. It can be argued that this punt return is the most famous in program history.

Tulsa would finally get their act together with Smith hitting a number of chunk pass plays, leading up to a 22-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Charles Clay to make it 10-7 UCF. On the ensuing drive, the Knights would fumble on a bad snap that ricocheted off Kevin Smith’s helmet and the Golden Hurricane would recover. Smith would hit linebacker Chris Chamberlain for 40-yards on a Paul Smith fake punt, which set up a first and goal. Smith would score on the next play with a pass to Jacob Collums. With that, Tulsa takes the lead 13-10 after the extra point was missed. UCF quarterback Kyle Israel found Rocky Ross on a pair of 20+ yard passes and Kevin Smith finished the drive with a short yard touchdown to retake the lead 17-13. Tulsa would march down the field and seemingly score on a Paul Smith quarterback draw. However, UCF coach George O’Leary challenged the play as there were 12 men on the field. With the points taken off the board, Smith would end the drive by throwing an interception to Johnell Neal. Two plays later, Kevin Smith would have another big play, scoring from 46 yards out. The Golden Hurricane and Knights would trade touchdowns. Paul Smith would connect with Trae Johnson for a 27-yard touchdown and Kevin Smith would score his third touchdown of the day. Tulsa would add a 32-yard field goal before halftime. UCF would lead 31-23.

The second half was much quiet than the first half, but it was all UCF. Tulsa began with the ball and moved down the field. On fourth and long, Smith throws another interception to Johnell Neal. After a UCF punt, Tulsa would drive again with a similar result: Jason Venson intercepts Smith at the goal line and almost took it completely the other way before tripping. Israel would then hit Kamar Aiken for 32 yards and bring the Knights into the redzone. They weren’t able to break through and settled for a 21-yard field goal to extend the lead to 34-23. After a bad Tulsa punt, Michael Torres would hit his third field goal of the day, this time from 45 yards out to extend UCF’s lead to 37-23.

Tulsa would again drive deep into UCF territory, converting a 4th and 9 at the UCF 34 into a 33-yard pass from Smith to Brennan Marion. That one yard was a big difference as the Knights had a successful goalline stand. On the next play, Kyle Israel couldn’t bring in the snap and fumbled the ball in the endzone, but recovers it to give Tulsa a safety. 37-25 UCF. Tulsa wasn’t able to capitalize, so they punted back to the Knights. Kevin Smith would have his last big play of the game with a monster 74-yard touchdown run in which he was badly facemasked in mid-run and was not able to be stopped en route to the endzone. This run would become one of UCF’s most recognizable plays. UCF would now lead 44-25 and that would be the final score.

2007 Conference USA Championship
UCF RB Kevin Smith
Photo by Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

UCF would improve to 10-3 on the season and get an invitation to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, which was where the Conference USA champion went. While Kevin Smith had another 100 yard rushing day, the Knights would fall short in the Liberty Bowl to finish 10-4 in the most successful season as a member of the FBS.

Kevin Smith led the game in rushing with 284 yards on 39 carries and four touchdowns. Quarterback Kyle Israel didn’t have to do too much, going 6/13 for 128 yards. His main target was Rocky Ross, who caught three passes for 63 yards. Paul Smith carried Tulsa, going 28/55 for 426 yards and three touchdowns, but he also had three interceptions.

If you look at the team stats, Tulsa seemed to have a better game than UCF. They won the first down battle 24-18, was 8/21 on third down versus 3/10, was 3/5 on fourth down versus 0/0, and outgained UCF 470-436. UCF, however, won the turnover battle 3-1 and was cleaner on penalties: 8/74 versus 3/25. Those turnovers were at key times as each one was either in or near the endzone.

Kevin Smith ended up falling short of Barry Sanders’ all-time single-season rushing record, but the record set for carries in a season that was set during this game still stands today at 450. He also ended up tied for second all-time in rushing touchdowns in a single season. His mark of 29 touchdowns would be passed by a number of players over the ensuing seasons. Smith ended up forgoing his senior season and declared for the NFL Draft. He would end up being drafted in the third round by the Detroit Lions. Paul Smith would end up three behind Brennan’s total touchdown record, which would be broken by Joe Burrow in 2019.

The 2007 season, aside from being the first season at Bright House Networks Stadium, was also the bounciest. The video showed how bouncy the stadium was. Before the next season, UCF would reinforce the steel and take some of the bounce out.

As this game wraps up the 2021 offseason for UCF Throwback Classics, I wanted to note that I personally was at eight of these nine games. The 1998 game was the only one I wasn’t at. The story behind starting this project goes back to 2020 when ESPNU had a UCF Day as a result of a won auction. The person who won the auction was able to select a number of ESPN-owned games to be re-broadcasted. It was internally discussed within the Black and Gold Banneret team that if there were a bunch of games to get on television, the 2007 Conference USA Championship Game had to be one of them. While I pleaded with the person who won that action to have this game included, it didn’t end up as one of the selected. The hunt began. I had already owned a number of these other games on my computer, some dating back to when they were new, and many were acquired over the last year. The 2007 Conference USA Championship Game became my white whale. It was always out of my grasp. It took me a year of searching and through multiple international sources(yes, I went international to find this game) before I was able to acquire it. I guess thanks are in order for helping motivate me to create a growing collection of UCF games. The quest for more classic games isn’t over though. There are more treasures to be found and shared with the masses. I hope you enjoyed this journey as much as I did and look forward to more episodes of UCF Throwback Classics.

My YouTube channel can be reached here.