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Knee-Jerk Reactions: UCF 25, #20 Cincinnati 21

The Knights defeat their first ranked opponent since Cincinnati in 2018

UCF RB #5 Isaiah Bowser celebrates after a touchdown against #20 Cincinnati.
Noah Goldberg

Without the pressure of hosting College GameDay, the UCF Knights played their biggest home game of the year. The home tilt with the Cincinnati Bearcats was long circled as the game of the year and it did not disappoint. UCF scored with 0:48 left on the clock to win 25-21 and become bowl eligible. It’s knee-jerk reaction time.

There’s no place like home

FBC Mortgage Stadium during sunset
Noah Goldberg

Last week, things didn’t go so well. I know that’s being very modest about it and I say it somewhat tongue-in-cheek. A lot of fans were nervous coming into this game and that last week’s game would repeat itself. One big difference is that this game was at home. The energy of the stadium can help establish and maintain momentum, along with making it more difficult for the opposition to build any. UCF struggled with it at ECU. The Pirates established momentum and despite the Knights scoring early in the second half, were able to take it back and not give the Knights a chance to disrupt things.

Today, the Knights used a raucous, near-filled stadium to create a lot of energy. On offense, the crowd got excited when Mikey Keene made a good read and ran the ball up the middle for nine yards after coming in for the injured John Rhys Plumlee. The atmosphere at FBC Mortgage Stadium exploded when RJ Harvey scored the go-ahead score near the end of the game and the Cincinnati offense could not quiet them before the Knights got the ball back and ran the clock out.

UCF’s history as a tough opponent in their home stadium is well documented. Since the hiring of Scott Frost ahead of the 2016 season, UCF has lost a total of six games with three of them occurring in 2016.

An ECU moment

UCF QB #13 Mikey Keene scrambles on a run
Noah Goldberg

In the second quarter, quarterback John Rhys Plumlee took a hard hit on a third and long run. After getting up, he stumbled on the field and was taken out of the game with a concussion. Backup Mikey Keene made his first appearance of the year and weathered a storm of fumbles in the redzone. One fumble was by Isaiah Bowser and one by RJ Harvey. After punting on the following possession, the offense settled down, scoring two touchdowns on the next two drives, including the winning run by RJ Harvey with 0:48 left on the clock.

Much like his 2021 game against ECU, Keene had the ball in his hands late while trailing with the game on the line. Keene went 4/4 for 57 yards on the final drive to set up the winning score. He went another 2/3 for 22 yards in the previous drive, which also ended in a touchdown that gave the Knights a temporary lead. Head coach Gus Malzahn mentioned wanting to preserve Keene’s redshirt, but despite playing tonight, he still has three more games while keeping his redshirt. What happens next week will depend on how Plumlee recovers from a concussion. As we know, concussions are tricky things.

The pass defense is soft…Snuggle soft

UCF’s pass coverage has been soft

Yes, the above picture is pretty blunt, but the pass defense has been very soft. This caused all sorts of problems against ECU and allowed Cincinnati quarterback Ben Bryant to throw for nearly 300 yards. Bryant deserves a lot of credit though. The Knights pass rush gave him a beating to remember, but he remained poised and took those hits.

Unlike against ECU, UCF’s blitz broke through the line and created problems for Bryant, who was hurried seven times, leading to multiple rushed and errant throws. These throws also led to seven pass breakups, with defensive lineman Ricky Barber and linebacker Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste leading the way with two each. The Knights had four total sacks spread across five players. The success of the defensive line and the blitz helped mask coverage issues in the secondary. Despite the line and blitzers having success, the defensive backs largely played soft coverage and allowed seven plays of 15+ yards through the air, including converting a 3rd and 15 with a 21-yard completion.

It is worth noting that later in the game, the defensive backs started to press more. Playing soft is safe and tends to prevent the big play, but it’s a little like investing. If you take no risk, you won’t reap any rewards. UCF’s pass defense has had no interceptions in the last three games, one since the first game against South Carolina State and two all year if you add that game. That’s not good.

So how did UCF win?

Noah Goldberg

This game should not have been as close as it was. UCF continued to operate at a net negative in turnovers, giving the ball away twice while not taking it back. The Knights did manage to get a safety on a sack in the endzone though.

Both Plumlee and Keene had efficient games. Plumlee went 7/11 for 71 yards along with 7 carries for 26 yards before being hurt. Keene went 15/21 for 176 yards. Both quarterbacks played turnover-free football, which helped overcome the turnovers by the running backs.

This was by far the best job by the offensive line. They opened up running lanes, gave good pass protection for both Plumlee and Keene, and were definitely an x-factor in UCF winning the game. On RJ Harvey’s game-winning run, the line parted the Red Sea of Cincinnati’s defense to help spring him into the open field. In the big play department, UCF had eight runs of 10+ yards, including both of Harvey’s touchdown runs. Plumlee was sacked once and Keene was hurried once. That’s a credit to the offensive line, who has struggled. One notable change was that Edward Collins saw time at right tackle during the game, replacing Ryan Swoboda.

As I mentioned last week, UCF is fully in control of their conference championship destiny. They have the tiebreaker on Cincinnati and they have a better win/loss record compared to Houston. With Tulane being the top team at this juncture, UCF will have an opportunity to win the heads-up tiebreaker. The Knights still have to play Memphis, Navy, and South Florida.

On another note

RIP Grass
Andrew Gluchov

UCF surprised fans by painting the endzones black. One of the reasons why they weren’t painted black before is that it usually kills the grass. Well guess what? The grass died. Shocking. The field is still painted black, but it’s largely dead grass and dirt. The field crew will probably let it ride the rest of the year. RIP grass.

As an alum of the Marching Knights, I always enjoy the homecoming show. Each song used in the show was one I played during my career, which spanned from 2001-2005. Good times.

Uniform review

UCF DB #14 Corey Thornton lines up for a play
Noah Goldberg

Part of UCF’s uniform reveal this year was a third uniform set, dubbed “Knightmode”. The Knightmode set is an all black uniform with gold and no white. This set was based on a request from athletics director Terry Mohajir to make a set with no white. The gold in this set is closer to the Vegas gold UCF used in their 2007 rebrand. The numbers, Knight eyes, and helmet decals all used this color. The gold numbers use a semi-reflective style seen more in Adidas uniforms than Nike.

The names on the black were a reflective black and end up being largely invisible unless the sun was directly reflecting off them or the camera zoomed in on the player. This is an interesting quirk of the uniform. It fits the Halloween weekend, but it’s a uniform set that needs to stay as a single set. The gold shade wouldn’t work as part of a mix-and-match.

Stat Leaders

UCF: Mikey Keene: 15/21 for 176 yards, 0 TD, 0 Int
UC: Ben Bryant: 25/45 for 298 yards, 1 TD, 0 Int

UCF: RJ Harvey: 18 carries for 84 yards, 2 TD
UC: Ryan Montgomery: 3 carries for 40 yards, 1 TD

UCF: Ryan O’Keefe: 7 catches for 69 yards, 0 TD
UC: Tre Tucker: 10 catches for 110 yards, 0 TD

Game Notes

  • The series is tied 4-4.
  • Running back RJ Harvey set a personal best for yards(88) and touchdowns(2).
  • This win is UCF’s first win against a ranked opponent since defeating Cincinnati in 2018.
  • UCF is now bowl eligible for a school record seventh consecutive season.
  • Sorry, it’s not my best, but my backup did a really good job and now we have a controversy.