However, the stars of the night ended up predominantly not being the players that have returned to the team for another season of college football, but rather its newest additions from the transfer portal.
Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, running back Isaiah Bowser, wide receiver Javon Baker, and tight end Kemore Gamble combined to be involved in six of the Knights’ seven touchdowns. All four of these players share the common trait of being recruited from the transfer portal by head coach Gus Malzahn in his first two years as UCF’s head coach.
“I think it just shows you can come here and get integrated really quickly and you can come out here and make plays for us,” Bowser said.
In Plumlee’s case, he was making plays with both his arm and his legs. He finished the game with 20 completions for 308 passing yards and four touchdowns, all three of which are new single-game career highs for him.
He also finished the night as the team’s leading rusher, with 15 attempts for a net total of 86 yards and a touchdown, and tallied a defensive highlight.
The play saw Plumlee chase down South Carolina State defensive lineman Jeblonski Green after he recovered a fumble, lure a Bulldog blocker towards him, and open up space for wide receiver Ryan O’Keefe to make a touchdown-saving tackle.
“As a kid, it’s been my dream to play quarterback and play baseball at the highest level, and I’m getting to live out seven-year-old John Rhys’ dream, and so I’m extremely blessed,” Plumlee said.
JRP is the talent at the QB spot that UCF has been missing since Mckenzie Milton got hurt. Grateful to finally have a playmaker who can use their feet and make the pass.— Danny Peterson (@dannypinnyc) September 2, 2022
The Ole Miss transfer connected with a pair of fellow SEC transfers, helping each of them get their first touchdowns in a Knights uniform. Baker, an Alabama transfer, got the first score of the UCF football season thanks to a 12-yard pass from Plumlee less than five minutes into the game. Meanwhile, Gamble, a Florida transfer, made a 30-yard over-the-shoulder catch to get the second score of the night.
“Those guys are really, really hard workers and so they deserved what they got tonight,” Plumlee said. “They did really good. I’m proud of them.”
The wide receivers were not the only ones to make it to the end zone. Running back Johnny Richardson got a receiving touchdown thanks to a pass in the backfield from Plumlee that he took 18 yards to the house. Meanwhile, Bowser got two rushing touchdowns on a pair of one-yard runs.
The lone tight end touchdown came from Zach Marsh-Wojan on a 21-yard reception that was also his first in a UCF uniform.
“We got so many weapons on offense, I think each game you’ll probably see maybe two or three really come on,” Malzahn said.
The offense was not the only unit to have a new face lead the way. Linebacker Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste, one of the Knights’ captains, leads a linebacker room consisting predominantly of transfers. One of them, Walter Yates III from Savannah State, led the team with seven total tackles, surpassing Jean-Baptise’s five-tackle game.
“I told them, ‘Don’t be nervous when we go into this game, but when we come into this game, we’re going to be confident,’” Jean-Baptiste said. “We are the quarterbacks of the defense, so I told them boys everybody’s gonna rally around us, and if we play fast and physical, they know everybody’s gonna follow.”
With a win to open the season under its belt, the team now turns its attention to next Friday’s matchup as Louisville comes to town. Last year, the Cardinals kept pace with the Knights’ offense as their quarterback, Malik Cunningham, got 265 passing yards and led the team in rushing yards to go along with a pair of rushing touchdowns.
This season, however, the Knights have a dual-threat quarterback of their own in Plumlee.
“Nobody knows what he’s gonna do next,” defensive end Josh Celiscar said. “So, that’s just gonna get us better and help us get prepared for Malik [Cunningham].”