ORLANDO, Fla. -- South Florida tied UCF 42-42 with 1 minute, 41 seconds remaining, and Knights head coach Scott Frost stood on the sideline in disbelief.
UCF starting cornerback Mike Hughes had been on the field when Quinton Flowers threw an 83-yard touchdown pass to Darnell Salomon and made the two-point conversion. Now Hughes had to turn around and get back on the field with the kickoff unit.
Frost said into his headset to his coaches upstairs, "I hope we can get a decent return here."
The hope was for good enough field position to allow kicker Matt Wright an opportunity at a game-winning field goal. But given the way these two rivals had played throughout the afternoon and into the evening on Friday, there was no way the football gods would allow this game to end with a few plays to get into field goal range.
USF and UCF traded big plays so often, you got the sense this game simply would end with a big play, too. But who would get it? And what form would it take?
Hughes walked onto the field with his teammates, feeling good about the call his coaches had made. It was the same call UCF had for his first kickoff return of the game, one that went 30 yards. Hughes would say later that one mistake had been made on the return or he would have broken that one, too.
Emilio Nadelman kicked off. Hughes fielded the ball at the 5.
"Once I saw the kick was short, I took it, I went with the return," Hughes said. "Everyone knows what they're going to do. And I know what I'm going to run, and I've got to give those guys up front credit. They did a great job of following through with the play. I saw a cutback lane, and I just took advantage of it."
He made one juke move, then turned on the speed to get past Nadelman. Once he cleared the kicker, Hughes had only field in front of him.
"I know if I get caught by the kicker, those guys will give me a long night," Hughes said. "I tried my best to not let that happen."
Hughes described the moment that gave UCF the 49-42 victory as surreal. For his teammates, too.
"I think my heart skipped four beats," quarterback McKenzie Milton said. "I thought we were going to have the chance to go down and do a two-minute drill, and he just took the game out of our hands. That was tremendous. He's been doing that all year for us making plays in special teams, defense. He's a blessing to have on our team."
Added receiver Otis Anderson: "It was crazy. I swear, really, when Mike caught it and he split past the first two defenders, everybody kind of caught their breath like, 'Huh?' When he cut and slipped past two more and there was no one left but the kicker, everybody basically knew that it was a touchdown. Any moment like that, it's like Christmas came early. We were really thankful for it."
Hughes' journey to UCF can best be described as long and winding. He started his football career at North Carolina in 2015 before moving on to junior college in Garden City, Kansas, and then to UCF -- but only after his plans to transfer to South Carolina fell through. He wasn't added to the roster until Aug. 18. But he quickly emerged as a standout and has started the past 10 games at cornerback, while handling kickoff duties.
Hughes was part of a secondary that allowed Quinton Flowers to throw for more than 500 yards and gain 600 total yards -- a performance that was the single-best day any USF player has ever had. It also was the best day any quarterback has had against UCF this season.
What Flowers did to lead USF, and what Milton did to lead UCF, made it an unforgettable Friday and, really, an unforgettable game this college football season. The back-and-forth between them, the big plays, the offense, the scoring, these are all reasons people tune in to watch -- whether they have a rooting interest or not.
Then to have Hughes win it all with a kickoff return? Unforgettable.