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Football surges past SMU to open AAC play

UCF Football returns from Hurricane Ian and shuts down SMU in second half for its first 2022 AAC win

Noah Goldberg

Before every UCF Knights football game, head coach Gus Malzahn writes three key points on a locker-room whiteboard, quarterback John Rhys Plumlee said.

One of those keys proved prophetic during the Knights’ Wednesday night demolishing of the SMU Mustangs.

“The second half is ours.”

After going down 13-10 in the first half, UCF (4-1, 1-0 AAC) reigned in the Mustangs to keep them scoreless for all but the last second of the second half, ultimately demolishing them, 41-19.

“We just knew if we kept the game close at halftime that we’re gonna come out with a win,” wide receiver Ryan O’Keefe said.

O’Keefe got a pair of receiving touchdowns in the second half to go along with 117 receiving yards on six receptions. Fellow wide receiver Javon Baker also broke the century mark with a career-high 138 receiving yards on six receptions. It was the first time since Nov. 13, 2020, that two Knights reached 100 yards receiving in a single game.

The feat came in large part thanks to Baker and O’Keefe’s ability to get yards after the catch, also known as YAC. Both receivers collected 70+ YAC Wednesday night, a large portion of it coming on the pair’s signature plays: O’Keefe’s 58-yard touchdown reception early in the 4th quarter and Baker’s 51-yard reception in which he juked several SMU defenders before being forced out of bounds.

Baker said after the game he and O’Keefe call themselves “YAC monsters.”

“That’s part of my game,” O’Keefe said. “I feel like every time I get the ball I’m going to do something extra with it. That’s what I pride myself on, that’s what we pride ourselves on the receiving room because we only get so many opportunities in a game to catch a ball, so just try to do the most with it.”

Baker and O’Keefe’s fancy footwork also helped quarterback John Rhys Plumlee finish his night with 316 passing yards and two touchdowns, a rebound from his 49-passing-yard performance against Georgia Tech.

“I always heap on the little things, but they end up being big things over time,” Plumlee said. “Once you really dive into the gameplan, and you know the gameplan well, with this kind of offense and these kinds of offensive minds, it makes it easy for you.”

Another area of improvement from the offense was its performance in the red zone, Malzahn said. The team went three for three inside the 20-yard-line thanks to a trio of rushing touchdowns from running back Isaiah Bowser.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on being good in red zone offense, and you look statistically we’re one of the worst in the country,” Malzahn said. “That’s kind of the tough deal, and that’s on me, and so we got to get it corrected. We did better tonight.”

“I’m real proud of our guys. We’ll continue to get better in that area.”

As the offense exploded after halftime, defensive coordinator Travis Williams and his unit kept SMU’s 6th-ranked passing offense, spearheaded by quarterback Tanner Mordecai and wide receiver Rashee Rice, from making a dent in the Knights’ second-half lead.

Malzahn said the Mustang offense was a “scary group to get ready for.” Despite that, the Knights’ defense kept SMU scoreless in the second half until the final second. While Rice, who Malzahn called on one of the best receivers in the country, still racked up 122 receiving yards, no Mustang receiver found the end zone all game.

This makes it the first time since Halloween 2020 that Mordecai has played in a game without throwing a single touchdown pass.

“Our defensive backs took a challenge,” Malzahn said. “I mean, we manned them up a lot. A lot of people play zone, we tried to man ‘em up. We got some really good DBs, some really good corners, and they took it personal.”

The game served as a pick-me-up for a Central Florida area still recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricane Ian. The storm postponed the game from its original Saturday, Oct. 1 date to Sunday and ultimately to Wednesday night. It also marred the team’s practice schedule.

“It was a challenge, and even when you get back, it felt weird there for a day or two,” Malzahn said. “Finally, we kind of started getting into a routine. Credit to our coaches and our players to be able to be focused to play like they did tonight.”

With a win under its belt to open conference play, the Knights have another weeknight game next week as they host Temple for the annual Space Game at 7 p.m. on Thursday.

“It propels you into the next game,” Plumlee said. “We’re looking to ride this momentum, looking to build on the things that we did, especially in the second half, and ultimately propel us into another one.”