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Roundtable: Championship Saturday

Knights are back in the Big Easy with a title on the line

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Tulane Rebecca Warren-USA TODAY Sports

The #22 UCF Knights have a rematch with the #18 Tulane Green Wave on Saturday, this time with the American Athletic Conference championship and a spot in the Cotton Bowl on the line.

We’re putting our heads together one more time to preview the biggest game of the season.

If you’re Willie Fritz, what are you fixing from the last meeting?

Tulane v USF
Willie Fritz
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Jeff: Well, the news attached to this is that Tommy Castellanos is listed as JRP’s backup, and if Plumlee can’t go, or gets hurt, it’s TC Time. So that tells me UCF is going to live or die by the run. Thus, if I’m Willie Fritz, I’m stacking the box and daring either JRP or a true freshman Castellanos to beat my #13-ranked pass defense through the air.

Bryson: If JRP plays, I’d have a QB Spy on him every single play. The guy managed to run for 180 yards on the Green Wave last time. So, if I’m Coach Fritz, I’m instructing my D-Lineman and Linebackers on Saturday to keep Plumlee inside the pocket (or at least behind the line of scrimmage) and force him to try and win the game with his arm.

Kyle: Coach Fritz in his own words at the American Athletic Conference Zoom call said that his squad would need to concentrate more on playing, “11-on-11”. In other words, don’t be surprised if you see Tulane’s defense more patient attacking the offensive backfield to fill running gaps with a player (a linebacker of safety) spying John Rhys Plumlee to prevent some of those “jackpot” runs he’s become notorious for in his opponent’s film room.

If and when Mikey Keene sees time in the game, the Wave should shift from disciplined to aggressive. They should crash down on the edge to challenge tackles Tylan Grable and 1st Team All-Conference Ryan Swoboda to force Keene into turnovers like other teams have when he’s seen the field.

Andrew: It’s no secret that UCF is a run-first team, regardless of who the quarterback is. If John Rhys Plumlee is playing, there is an extra running back on the field and he’s already proven very capable of carving up the Green Wave rushing defense. He’s an x-factor that can run the ball inside or outside. Due to his speed and agility, he’s difficult to spy on. The defensive backfield will need to work more man coverage to allow for more run defense.

The other running backs are used in a relatively predictable fashion that the defense can key in on.

If you’re Gus Malzahn, what are you changing from the last meeting?

Gus Malzahn
Derek Warden

Jeff: In the last meeting, UCF forced Tulane to put the ball in the hands of Michael Pratt, and that darn near led Tulane to a comeback from down 24-7. They got spooked early by Tyjae Spears’ long run, and that led Travis Williams to shut that down. I think this time around UCF will be much more aggressive on the outside, and not let Tulane's receivers get free releases. If the front four can get pressure on Pratt while the back seven keeps the receivers on lock, that might present opportunities for turnovers via sacks or bad throws.

Bryson: I would be tasking defensive coordinator Travis Williams to find a way to change the defensive scheme to better handle Tyjae Spears. This is unless, of course, having LB Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste for this game (he did not play in the last UCF-Tulane matchup) fixes that. Offensively, I would be diversifying the rushing attack, especially if Tulane takes measures to keep JRP from making a big play with his legs. Aside from Harvey and Bowser doing their thing, I would also work in a few more jet sweeps with O’Keefe and even some plays from Johnny Richardson and perhaps Mark-Antony Richards too. Malzahn knows that the running game worked last time, so to come out on top again this time, he needs to exploit that aspect that he knows his team excels at in a way that the Green Wave may not expect.

Kyle: This is a more complicated question for Coach T-Will and the UCF defense. While it looks like JJB will be back in at the defensive end, he won’t solve every problem. The only big tweak I would make is to not sit back so much on third-and-long plays. have corners lock up with receivers before the line to gain and prevent the yards after the catch that has seen this defense stay on the field on third downs.

Andrew: Tulane is a good team. UCF’s chances of winning will fall on the defense. The problem is the Green Wave can beat you in the air or on the ground. Quarterback Michael Pratt is not prone to making many mistakes, so like last time the two teams met, it will take him being hurried or hit to generate bad throws. Running back and AAC Offensive Player of the Year Tyjae Spears is a tough back to keep contained. The defense will give up chunk plays, but they just need to mitigate the amount of damage.

If JRP can’t go, what should be the plan?

John Rhys Plumlee
Photo: Derek Warden

Jeff: I have no problem with UCF doing what they do best: Run, run, run. Given that we now know Tommy Castellanos will be the #2 QB, that tells me Gus is all-in on running the ball, no matter who’s out there. So I almost think UCF should Navy Tulane — Grind their defense into a pulp, play from ahead, and burn the clock. The goal is to win, not look pretty doing it.

Bryson: Make sure to work a few play-action passes into the game script. Tulane should respect UCF’s rushing attack after the last game, so the more the Knights can use that to free up their receivers, the better. It doesn’t have to be crazy, but just enough to keep the Green Wave defense guessing.

Kyle: Use split backs in support of whoever is at the quarterback position. RJ Harvey, Johnny Richardson, and Isaiah Bowser have both proven their worth as receivers as well as runners. Also, Bowser is an excellent lead blocker and has shown his worth helping in protection. Use this to confuse the defense on the ground to set up the big run that JRP would usually find while supplementing with play-action bombs down the field.

Also, if Tulane begins to adapt, you can always motion guys out of the backfield to help the quarterback by making the defense tip their hand and showing what coverage they are set in.

Andrew: Game management. Mikey Keene is out and Tommy Castellanos is in at backup quarterback. Castellanos is a true freshman and despite playing in four games, hasn't played against the first units in any of them. If he has to step in, expect a simple playbook that continues being run-first. He's very talented with his legs, much like Plumlee. He just needs more seasoning.

As we’ve said all year, it’s expected that Mikey Keene will transfer, so Gus has been working to keep that redshirt status. After the game last week, he commented about playing and burning the redshirt since it was Keene's fourth game. He said yes, but emotions run high after a game of that magnitude, so once things settled down, perspectives change.

If Castellanos has to play even one snap, his redshirt is burned and he'll come into 2023 with three years of eligibility as opposed to four. You know Gus is going to try and keep this from happening, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Give us your most important key to the game — No duplicates.

Jeff: Score first and score seven. Credit to Trace Trylko for this nugget. One of my favorite single-season NFL teams is the 1998 Denver Broncos, and they also made it a point to get the opening kickoff, drive the ball, and put seven points on the board on their opening possession.

The Knights are 7-0 when they score first this season (oddly, the two wins when they didn’t score first were blowouts vs. FAU and Temple). We saw against Navy what happens when the Knights fall behind early. Tulane obviously is not Navy, but they could make UCF’s life difficult if they play from ahead. They are 9-1 this year when scoring first, with the only loss coming against Southern Miss at home, which still stands as the most bizarre result in The American this year as far as I’m concerned.

Bryson: Be prepared to win the game through the air if you need to. After last time, the Green Wave should be preparing themselves to stop the Knights’ runners (both RBs and QBs) and avoid a repeat of a game in which the Knights gained the 4th-most rushing yards by an AAC team in a single game all season.

The issue is that if Tulane’s rush defense is improved then it would complement the leading passing defense in the AAC, with the least passing yards allowed and tied for the 2nd-most interceptions. Only UMass, Alcorn State, and Cincinnati threw for fewer passing yards against them than UCF did. Now, it doesn’t have to be SMU levels of passing yardage, it just needs to be improved from last time and be enough yardage to make up for any not gained via the run. So, I’d say a minimum of 180-200 passing yards should be able to do the trick.

Kyle: The Hamstring — Without JRP in the lineup, this offense has found itself hamstrung at times. Based on how coach Malzahn has been talking, Plumlee is going to start which means he is inevitably going to try to run at some point early. The longer it takes for that injury to impact his speed, the better it is for UCF. If JRP is on the bench by the end of the half, the Knights might find themselves having to dam up a surge from the Green Wave.

Andrew: Damage mitigation. Tulane is going to move the ball. The key is to keep big plays to a minimum and key in on Tyjae Spears. The defense has struggled against big plays as of late and they need to remember what made them so dangerous. Head coach Willie Fritz is very scrappy and his team reflects that. After the announcement that he will remain head coach of the Green Wave, the team is spirited and motivated to finish their best season in the CFP era.


Jeff: I’m scared. It’s hard to beat a team on their field twice in the same season. The hell with it: 28-27 UCF.

Bryson: It was close last time and I think it will be again. So, I’ll say UCF wins, 34-31, thanks to a Colton Boomer field goal.

Kyle: Malzahn mentioned on Monday the risks of a quarterback with a physical running playing style. Wear and tear take their toll and his starting quarterback “hasn’t been 100% in a while”. Bryson’s right that it will be close, but I think Tulane holds on making Bryson’s preseason prediction of a loss to the Green Wave come true — albeit a bit later on the calendar than expected, 31-28

Andrew: I want to be optimistic. The stakes are very high as the Cotton Bowl awaits the winner. The loser will be relegated to a mid-tier bowl at best. The Knights haven’t been right since the Tulane game and I’m not sure if they find what made them great in time. I have the same score as Kyle, 31-28.