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Knee-Jerk Reactions: Navy 17, #20 UCF 14

A surprise loss ends hosting chances for the AAC championship game

NCAA Football: Navy at Central Florida
UCF RB Isaiah Bowser
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

UCF’s New Year Six bowl hopes were largely dashed and their conference championship aspirations took heavy damage as the 17th ranked UCF Knights fell to the Navy Midshipmen 17-14. It’s time for some knee-jerk reactions.

Halftime adjustments didn’t mean all that much

NCAA Football: Navy at Central Florida
UCF QB John Rhys Plumlee fakes a handoff to RB Isaiah Bowser
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Going into a game with Navy, you need to score early and often to withstand their fourth-quarter running onslaught. UCF failed to do it.

Navy jumped out to an early 7-0 lead and after UCF whittled the lead to 7-6, the Midshipmen scored late to take a 14-6 halftime lead.

UCF’s offense was struggling. UCF only managed 154 yards of offense with quarterback John Rhys Plumlee going 11/18 for 107 yards. He had some key bad third-down passes that forced UCF to settle for field goals.

Head coach Gus Malzahn switched to Mikey Keene for the second half due to Plumlee having shoulder soreness and Keene started hot, going 3/3 for 79 yards and a 28-yard touchdown to Javon Baker on the first drive of the third. UCF would convert the two-point conversion to tie the game at 14.

But UCF’s offense would sputter again. On the ensuing drive, a strip sack on Keene would set Navy up for a field goal to take a 17-14 lead that would hold into the fourth quarter. The Knights' offense did very little in the fourth quarter as Keene struggled the rest of the way, going 5/12 for 44 yards with 3 sacks and the previously mentioned fumble.

It’s worth noting that Mikey Keene has now played in three games and can play up to four and keep his redshirt. The coaching staff has been trying to preserve Keene’s redshirt, so they will try to be careful in using that fourth game.

Why did the offense struggle so much?

Some would say quarterback play, but blocking was the primary culprit. Both quarterbacks had rough days. Plumlee’s 11/18 was good for 61% and Keene’s 8/15 was good for 53%. Both QBs were adversely affected by missed blocking assignments which allowed linebacker John Marshall to run amuck. Marshall finished with 10 tackles, 4 sacks, and a forced fumble. The blocking woes weren’t just the offensive line’s doing. The tight ends and running backs missed multiple blocks. Missed blocks kept happening at key times and it took points off the board.

Run Forrest Run

NCAA Football: Navy at Central Florida
UCF LB Water Yates III tackles Navy RB Daba Fofana
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

When you play Navy, you know they are going to run. That means a lot of hitting, slow possessions that eat a lot of clock, and frustration from broken tackles.

UCF’s frustration was largely due to fullback Daba Fofana. Fofana made his presence known early with a 46-yard run that helped set up Navy’s first touchdown. Later in the second quarter, he ran for 20 yards after initially being bottled up for no gain, but he changed directions to the outside and found a lack of defenders for the big gain. That run also led to a Navy touchdown.

UCF’s run defense was effective in the second half, especially on third down. Navy was 0/8 on third down in the second half. Unfortunately, they were 2/2 on fourth down in critical times in the game. They finished the game a perfect 4/4 on fourth down.

One thing I noted in the Round Table is that this Midshipmen squad isn’t afraid to pass and not to oversell to the run. While the first dropback by quarterback Xavier Arline was late enough for Davonte Brown to make a play, the defense kept an eye out for a pass play. The next two dropbacks ended up in sacks.

So how did UCF lose?

The simple answer is execution. The offense was not able to create consistent drives. The primary culprit was blocking. The team could not score in the red zone.

In the second half, the Knights largely abandoned the run game, which is essential to set up the passing game. Navy dared UCF to throw the ball and blitzed Mikey Keene heavily in the second half. John Rhys Plumlee had a sore shoulder from last week that hurt his ability to throw the ball, hence Gus Malzahn’s decision to change quarterbacks.

The defense did just about everything they could to keep the team in the game. They gave up six plays of 10+ yards, including the two runs from Fofana mentioned above. Those were the two largest plays for Navy. Outside of those six plays, which accounted for 123 of Navy’s 248 yards, UCF did a good job of not giving up big plays. Making a team go 5/17 on third down is good. The problem is that it’s Navy and they had more than enough fourth and shorts, converting all four of their fourth down attempts.

Now what?

We wait.

Hosting the conference championship game is no longer an option. This is a setback, but it’s not over.

To reach the American Championship Game, the Knights will need to keep an eye on the scoreboard. UCF has to win next week and the Houston Cougars have to lose. Why? Tiebreakers.

UCF has the head-to-head tiebreaker with both the Tulane Green Wave and Cincinnati Bearcats but never played Houston. So if Houston wins out, they will have two conference losses along with UCF and the loser of Cincinnati and Tulane. Since Tulane or Cincinnati would be ranked in the CFP and one has to lose in that final weekend, this provision of the tiebreakers would be used (per the tiebreaker rules from the AAC website):

7.5.2. If the highest-ranked of the tied teams in the latest available CFP Selection Committee rankings loses in the final weekend of regular season Conference play, then a composite average of selected computer rankings (Anderson & Hester, Billingsley, Colley and Wolfe) will be used to determine the Championship Game participants.

It’s still possible UCF could be selected, but with a bad South Florida team adding to UCF’s computer ranking composite, there is no guarantee the Knights would be the top composite of the three.

Uniform review

NCAA Football: Navy at Central Florida
UCF used their patriotic block logo on a white shell with black tops and white bottoms
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

To celebrate the military, UCF went with their patriotic decals on a white shell and allowed each player to pick a sticker of the service of their choice to be affixed on the back of the helmet. The rest of the uniform uses the standard black top and white bottom.

Stat Leaders

UCF: Mikey Keene: 8/15 for 123 yards, 1 TD, 0 Int
Navy: Xavier Arline: 0/1 for 0 yards, 0 TD, 0 Int

UCF: Isaiah Bowser: 10 carries for 64 yards, 0 TD
Navy: Daba Fofana: 20 carries for 114 yards, 0 TD

UCF: Javon Baker: 6 catches for 101 yards, 1 TD
Navy: : 0 catches for 0 yards, 0 TD

Game Notes

  • The series is tied 2-2.
  • UCF finishes their 2022 revenge tour 2-2, defeating SMU and Cincinnati while losing to Louisville and Navy
  • Wide receiver Ryan O’Keefe moved into 5th place in school history in receptions.
  • Sorry, it’s not my best, but I got sacked by John Marshall while trying to write this.