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Knee-Jerk Reactions: #22 UCF 46, South Florida 39

UCF wins the 2022 edition of the War on I-4 and cliches a spot in the AAC Championship Game in dramatic fashion.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at South Florida
UCF QB John Rhys Plumlee and OL Samuel Jackson plant the War on I-4 trophy into the ground at Raymond James Stadium
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

In what will be the last matchup in the War on I-4 rivalry for some time, the UCF Knights traveled to Tampa and after dominating the first half, held on for dear life, before coming back and creating a legendary finish to defeat the South Florida Bulls 46-39 to clinch a berth in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game. It’s time for some knee-jerk reactions.

Shifting the game plan

UCF QB John Rhys Plumlee got injured and was replaced by Mikey Keene
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

SPORTS! That is all.

No really. Rivalry games are weird. Things happen outside of the norm and this game was no exception.

The first half went as planned. The team ran the ball plenty and was incredibly efficient. The team was a perfect 7/7 on third down and John Rhys Plumlee was 9/9 for 73 yards and a touchdown in the air while gaining 133 yards and two touchdowns on 8 carries. His first touchdown was a 64-yard run that was the same play as his 67-yard run against Tulane. Plumlee pulled up a bit lame on his second touchdown run and started moving gingerly. On his lone touchdown pass, it was obvious he was hurting and was not able to plant on his throws. As head coach Gus Malzahn later confirmed, Plumlee injured his hamstring.

In the second half, Malzahn inserted Mikey Keene and the dynamics changed. Plumlee was able to run at will and while Keene can tuck it and run, he does not command the same respect as Plumlee when it comes to his legs. Like Plumlee, Keene was efficient as well in the air, going 15/19 for 129 yards and two touchdowns. He also gained 17 yards on three carries.

What went wrong were turnovers. Keene fumbled on an exchange with Harvey on an RPO. Ryan O’Keefe was stripped. Both turnovers took place in Knights territory. The Bulls took advantage and scored touchdowns off both of these. A third fumble by Harvey didn’t net any points for South Florida, but it took away valuable time.

Even with the clock ticking down, the Knights still stayed true to their run to open the pass offense and it worked. All they have to do is hold on to the ball. Why was the game so close? We’ll talk about that soon.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at South Florida
UCF QB Mikey Keene
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

When asked if he was willing to play a fifth game and burn his redshirt, Keene showed the same character that has won over fans and players alike: “Yeah, let’s go win a championship.”


Tackling techniques took a break

NCAA Football: Central Florida at South Florida
UCF DB Justin Hodges makes an interception
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

South Florida was able to move the ball way more than anticipated due to a ton of missed tackles. The quality of tackling will need to drastically improve if UCF is planning on defeating Tulane next week.

Running back Brian Battie and quarterback Byrum Brown were able to create a lot of chunk yardage as a result of slipping out of Knights defenders’ hands. The Bulls had nine rushing plays of 10+ yards. Seven of them were by Battie or Brown and two ended in touchdowns with one going for 14 yards(Battie) in the third quarter and the other for 42 yards(Brown) in the fourth. Add in a 68-yard run by Battie earlier in the quarter as well.

As has been the case for most games, Jason Johnson led the way with 11 tackles, the only player from either team with double digit in total tackles.

So how did UCF win?

UCF ran the ball, ran the ball again, and then ran it once more. UCF flat out out-talented South Florida. Things were looking good in the first half with UCF up 28-7 at halftime. The Knights outgained the Bulls 318-200 with the Bulls turning the ball over two times to the Knights zero. UCF was a perfect 7/7 on third down and was nearly mistake-free.

After extending the lead to 31-7, the wheels fell off. Mikey Keene would take over for the hobbling Plumlee and the Knights would have two fumbles lost on their side of the field. The Bulls would score three touchdowns and two successful two-point conversions and outscore UCF 22-3 in the third quarter to make it 31-29. The Bulls outgained the Knights 133-80 in the third with UCF turning the ball over twice

In the fourth quarter, the Knights were able to extend it to 38-29, but the Bulls scored the next ten points to take a 39-38 lead. After a RJ Harvey fumble, the defense was able to put the clamps on to get the ball back. With 2:49 left in the fourth and the ball on the UCF 18, que vintage Mikey Keene. Keene orchestrated an 8 play, 82 yard drive that culminated in Alec Holler becoming an instant UCF legend with the go-ahead touchdown by the slimmest of margins. After the successful two-point conversion to make it 47-39, the drama wasn’t over. Kicker Riker Casey tried to line a kick to the 35-yard line, but it was nabbed by South Florida at midfield. The Knights were able to keep the Bulls out of the endzone as time expired before the celebration began.

The end of an era?

QB John Rhys Plumlee walks off the field
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

With UCF leaving for the Big 12 next season, this is the last football matchup of the War on I-4. There is plenty of bad blood between the two schools and tempers flared during and after the game, as seen below.

The Knights now lead the series 8-6, winning the last six, and will be owning the War on I-4 trophy for the foreseeable future. Back in 2008, the Bulls used a shovel to take some stadium turf from Orlando after winning the first four football matchups between the two schools. UCF returned the favor by sticking the War on I-4 trophy into the ground. As you saw above, the flag never made it into the turf at midfield, but not for a lack of trying.

With South Florida’s schedule full for the next few years and UCF’s desire to stretch their scheduling legs, it might be some time before these two play again. It will happen again. The question is not if, but when.

Now what?

By virtue of UCF winning the tiebreaker, it’s on to New Orleans for the AAC Championship Game against Tulane. The Green Wave defeated the Cincinnati Bearcats 27-24 to finish 7-1 and first place in the American. On the line is a berth in the New Year Six’s Cotton Bowl.

Uniform review

UCF wore a black shell with a chrome Knight head, white tops, and black bottoms
Derek Warden

Mimicking their uniform from the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl, which was also played in Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, the Knights are wearing black helmets with a chrome Knight head, white tops and black bottoms. It’s certainly a strong contrast against South Florida’s slime green uniform.

Stat Leaders

UCF: Mikey Keene: 15/19 for 129 yards, 2 TD, 0 Int
SFLA: Byrum Brown: 13/20 for 140 yards, 1 TD, 1 Int

UCF: John Rhys Plumlee: 8 carries for 133 yards, 2 TD
SFLA: Brian Battie: 19 carries for 144 yards, 1 TD

UCF: Ryan O’Keefe: 6 catches for 43 yards, 1 TD
SFLA: Jimmy Horn Jr: 5 catches for 50 yards, 0 TD

Game Notes

  • UCF leads the series 8-6.
  • UCF has won the last six matchups with the Bulls. The last win by South Florida was in 2016.
  • UCF finishes their regular season 9-3 and will play in the AAC Championship Game.
  • I improve to 20-1 in UCF games I cover in person.
  • Sorry, it’s not my best, but my eyes melted due to South Florida’s garish slime green uniforms.