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Knee-Jerk Reactions: ECU 34, UCF 13

The Knights’ first real road test was a complete dud

NCAA Football: Central Florida at East Carolina
UCF LB Jason Johnson attempts to tackle ECU WR CJ Johnson
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Playing their first true road game of the season and with hosting ESPN College GameDay next week on the line, the UCF Knights fell behind 17-0 in the first half and could not close the gap en route to a 34-13 drubbing to the East Carolina Pirates. It’s knee-jerk reaction time.

I asked for two complete games. I did not get that.

In the Round Table before the Temple game, I asked for a complete game against an FBS opponent and I got one. I also asked for a second one to show some consistency.

I did not get that.

The first half was rough, to say the least. Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee had three turnovers with two interceptions and a fumble lost. His efficient 9/12 for 138 yards was negated by his three turnovers. He did find Kobe Hudson for 37 yards to set up Colton Boomer’s half-ending field goal to avoid their first scoreless first half since 2015, but ECU had a 17-3 lead at this point.

The second half at least found the endzone, but UCF could not establish any momentum to turn the tide and close the gap. It wasn’t until the game was in hand that UCF would turn the ball over for the fourth time.

This wasn’t all Plumlee’s fault though. See below.

The defensive game plan backfired

NCAA Football: Central Florida at East Carolina
UCF DB Justin Hodges vs ECU WR CJ Johnson
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers is known for making mistakes and throwing interceptions. UCF defensive coordinator Travis Williams decided to have a lot of blitzes to try and rattle Ahlers. Ahlers is a fifth-year starter and the blitzes were not creating much of any trouble, forcing the defensive backs to hold their own and Ahlers was able to carve them apart, highlighted by a 39-yard touchdown to CJ Johnson. The defense had softer coverage and could not get off the field and it allowed ECU to control the time of possession, leading 19:50 to 10:10.

The second half didn’t change much as UCF continued to blitz and continued to fail. The secondary continued to play soft coverage and gave what Ahlers wanted: one on one coverage on the outside. He feasted on it, going 30/36 for 311 yards and 1 touchdown. Overall, ECU outgained UCF 458/426 and won the time of possession 35:11 to 24:49.

The defense produced zero turnovers and ECU did not have to punt until midway through the fourth quarter. It’s pretty hard to win when the defense is as leaky as a sieve.

So how did UCF lose?

UCF had their first real road test of the year and did not rise to the occasion. The offense and defense both failed spectacularly.

It starts with quarterback John Rhys Plumlee and his three first half turnovers on the first three drives of the game. The game was scoreless at the time due to ECU missing a 25-yard field goal. ECU ended up converting them into 17 points, 202 yards of offense, and 15:45 of ball possession. The official stats say 10 since the second interception was on fourth down. Despite being 4/5 on third down, the Knghts were down two touchdowns. The second half was more balanced in scoring at 17-10 ECU. What hurt UCF was going 2/7 on third down and a sharp decrease in yards per play from 7.9 in the first half to 5.1 in the second.

The defense couldn’t get off the field. ECU went 9/14 on third down and 1/1 on fourth down while UCF went 6/12 and 2/3, respectively. As a result, the Pirates had their first punt with 7:09 left in the fourth quarter and were up 27-10. The Knights would take advantage and add a field goal, but it was way too little, way too late. The Pirates would slam the door two plays later on a 37-yard touchdown run by Keaton Mitchell. ECU’s offense was pretty consistent throughout the game. They scored 17 in each half, were over 60% on third down, and averaged between 6.6 and 6.7 yards per play.

This being the first true road test for the Knights was a flaw in the schedule that former athletics director Danny White helped design. He wanted to have an in-state opponent, like Florida Atlantic or Florida International, on the schedule. Since those teams are close enough to Orlando and fans could be a vocal part of the crowd, the team never had to deal with a truly hostile crowd in non-conference play. As a result, they seemed unprepared at ECU and looked rattled at times.

There were a few bright spots. In particular, is the continual rise of running back RJ Harvey. It’s no secret that I’ve been a fan of Harvey since seeing him in the 2021 spring game and he’s showing everyone why he’s aiming to be the lead back in 2023. Linebacker Jason Johnson continues to be a tackling machine, leading all players with 14 total tackles. He’s done really well making the jump from FCS All-American to FBS star.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at East Carolina
UCF RB RJ Harvey
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

One comforting thing: UCF is still fully in control of their conference championship destiny.

End of a rivalry

Say what you want about the recent history of the rivalry, but UCF has had a longer continual history with East Carolina than any other school. The schools met three times while UCF was a I-AA(now FCS) program in the 1990s and then again in 1996 when the Knights made the transition to I-A(now FBS). With the exception of 2013, when UCF was a new member of the American Athletic Conference and ECU was still in Conference USA for one more year, the two have played every year since 2005. The next closest schools in terms of the number of matchups are Bethune-Cookman with 17 and Memphis, who will hit 17 later this season.

Off the field, the two schools will be forever tied with Ronald Dowdy, the namesake of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Aside from being a member of the Central Florida hospitality hall of fame, he almost became the naming sponsor for UCF’s on-campus stadium before Bright House Networks outbid him.

Perhaps the schools will play each other again down the road in a scheduled series or a bowl game. Only Time will tell.

Uniform review

NCAA Football: Central Florida at East Carolina
UCF’s helmet is a throwback to the 1995 season
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

UCF busted out their retro state logo to mimic the helmet used in 1995, UCF’s final season in I-AA. During this season, UCF switched from a black shell the previous year to gold and would use a gold shell all the way until 2007. It was also the final year of using the state logo, which changed colors from black letters and a more yellow state to gold letters and a black state. The next year, UCF would move up to I-A and change their helmet logo to the lance logo. I would have preferred to see these at home for nostalgia purposes, but UCF certainly looked the part of a I-AA squad in this game. The rest of the uniform was their normal white away and black pants. They should have gone with gold pants to properly match the color schematic of the 1995 season. I would like to see UCF do an actual throwback with the full uniform. That would be very cool.

At least they didn’t use the name “Big Game Gold”. Maybe they learned that it should be retired.

Stat Leaders

UCF: John Rhys Plumlee: 25/37 for 296 yards, 0 TD, 3 Int
ECU: Holton Ahlers: 30/36 for 311 yards, 1 TD, 0 Int

UCF: Isaiah Bowser: 11 carries for 63 yards, 1 TD
ECU: Keaton Mitchell: 16 carries for 105 yards, 2 TD

UCF: RJ Harvey: 7 catches for 77 yards, 0 TD
ECU: CJ Johnson: 11 catches for 140 yards, 1 TD

Game Notes

  • ECU leads the series 11-10.
  • UCF falls to 1-5 in games played outside the state of Florida under Gus Malzahn. The only win was at Temple in 2021
  • Sorry, it’s not my best, but I just kept on blitzing this article and couldn’t get off the field.