ATLANTA — One more please. In a hallway of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Scott Frost posed for picture after picture with any Central Florida fan who asked until there was finally a pause in the traffic. With his backpack strapped on, Frost turned down a wide hallway and headed for an exit.
More than an hour after the biggest win of his coaching career, Frost carried a football. He’d traded out the leather game ball he’d received for UCF’s 34-27 upset of Auburn for the shiny, silver detachable ball that forms the top of the Peach Bowl trophy. Not one of Frost’s old Husker teammates could have popped that ball out of his grip; he had it tucked tight, as if he were the one running the counter keep instead of his MVP quarterback, McKenzie Milton.
Nebraska’s ever-busy, never-slow-down coach walked and talked.
“I’m in a daze,” Frost said. “Tired, worn out. But it’s worth it. When you try to do something the right way — and it works out — it’s even more rewarding.”
UCF and Frost achieved perfection — a 13-0 season — in a thrilling, physical, back-and-forth, big-stage bowl game Husker fans can remember from years past. The Knights had the 13-6 halftime lead, lost it quickly, surged with three straight touchdowns and held off a final Auburn march with an interception from UCF’s Antwan Collier. When it happened, Frost thrust his arms in the air, clapped, and started making hugs and handshakes as Milton, who fought through inaccuracy to amass 358 total yards and three touchdowns, kneeled out the win.
Frost and his staff — which he will bring whole cloth to Nebraska — spent a month juggling two jobs. Recruiting for NU. Preparing the Knights for their toughest game of the year. Making plans to move their lives and families halfway across the country. Celebrating the holidays. They all ran on empty and they pulled off the win.
“I didn’t know if these guys would be able to do it,” Frost said candidly. “I came back because it was the right thing to do, and I wanted to help give them the best chance that I could. And they surprised me again with their heart and resiliency.”
“Despite improbable odds, it all worked out,” said UCF Athletic Director Danny White, who had a banner day as at least 30,000 Knight fans — perhaps more — packed the dome, outnumbering and outyelling the Auburn contingent from start to finish. “It was a difficult situation. This wore on a lot of us, and it certainly wore on Scott. It just showed the genuine relationships he has with his players here.”
White got no argument from the players, who in UCF’s celebratory locker room lauded the efforts of Frost and his staff.
“They’re like dads to us,” Knight defensive tackle Jamiyus Pittman said. “They love us. They’ve never steered us wrong. We believe in ’em.”
Even if few believed in Central Florida before Monday. The Knights were nearly a double-digit underdog and their defense showed weaknesses in narrow season-ending wins over South Florida and Memphis. Auburn was SEC fast and SEC big. Its defensive line — which stuffed College Football Playoff entrants Alabama and Clemson — was supposed to manhandle UCF’s offense.
Just the opposite occurred. The Knights defense — behind MVP Shaquem Griffin — whipped Auburn’s offensive line to the tune of five sacks and ten tackles for loss. The Tigers normally average 228 rushing yards per game. UCF held them to 90.
“We knew what was coming and we just made plays,” said Griffin, the one-handed outside linebacker/defensive end who’s headed early to the NFL. “And when we got an opportunity to make a play, our guys did. We was all over the place.
“I heard recently that the quarterback wasn’t getting sacked that much this year. I think we had a thousand sacks today, so, I mean, I guess we did something right.”
“This guy over here was playing like his dreadlocks were on fire today,” Frost joked about Griffin.
UCF’s high-octane offense — sluggish and mistake-prone through 2 1⁄2 quarters — found its stride right after Auburn took a 20-13 lead in the third quarter. The Knights scored touchdowns on two straight drives, and its other two offensive drives in the fourth quarter ended in missed field goals. Milton completed just 3 of 17 passes in the first half. In the second, he hit 13-of-18, including an eight-yard touchdown pass in which he wove through Auburn’s defensive line and flipped the ball like a point guard.
“The O-line dominated the game today,” said Milton, who had time to scramble and find open receivers. “I don’t think anybody expected them to do that.”
The Knights seemed to seal the game with Chequan Burkett’s 45-yard interception for a touchdown, but the missed field goals loomed large and Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, pressed into hurry-up mode, threw for 110 yards in the fourth quarter. Auburn reached the UCF 21 with 33 seconds left.
A miscommunication between Stidham and his receiver led to Collier’s easy interception, which touched off a UCF celebration that stretched from Frost to the upper deck of UCF’s side of the stadium. The Knights’ nouveau-riche fan base partied; one joyous supporter, clad in a glittery gold jacket, flexed for a minute. Frost took hugs, reached midfield, and was surrounded there by players and media. Later, on the trophy podium, he crouched down for a second and waved. “Hey,” he mouthed.
Forty yards away, in UCF’s end zone, was his wife, Ashley, and their infant son, under a blanket dotted with cartoon whales.
When Frost took the trophy, confetti shot from the dome’s ceiling — three hours later, it still marked the field like the remains of a snow globe — and he took the trophy over to a few of his players.
He’d tried to keep the focus, all along, on them, even as he began making plans and signing recruits for Nebraska’s program. Afterward, Frost said he’d be a fan for both teams.
“Listen, I’ll get heat for saying this, but if I’m a recruiter out there, I want to come play at UCF,” Frost said. “It’s an incredible campus, it’s an incredible opportunity. They are going to come in and play with some unbelievable human beings and football players and if I’m a recruiter out there, I want to come to Nebraska and play for this group of men that made this happen.
“I’m going to be a fan of both, do everything I can for the guys at UCF and do everything I can at Nebraska, and I can’t wait to watch what both programs can accomplish.”
Pittman said he and his teammates would become fans of the Huskers because of Frost.
“He’s still my coach,” Pittman said. “Coach Frost is still my coach. I’m going to watch him wherever he goes. I don’t care where he goes. And I’m going to visit when I get a chance. I’ve never been to Lincoln.”
That’s where Frost’s headed soon — permanently, if Husker fans have their way. The month had been a full-on whirlwind of red-eye flights and days that bled into nights. He signed half of the Huskers recruiting class and he completed a perfect season. For all that, Frost earned the silver football and the right to do whatever he pleased on the first night of 2018.
“I’m going to get some sleep,” Frost said. “And I’m going to spend some time with my son.”