The UCF Knights took the field at Nippert Stadium to battle their former American Athletic Conferencemates the Cincinnati Bearcats. With both of these struggling teams still looking for their first Big 12 win, something had to give — and it gave to Knight fans who are celebrating their first conference victory, 28-26.
Over and above Cincy’s role as a likely “new rivalry” in the Big 12, one of the quarterbacks the Knights faced Saturday was a familiar face — Florida transfer Emory Jones. The last time Jones faced UCF was the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl where the Knights beat the Gators in Gus Malzahn’s first season as head coach.
Aware of Jones as a dual threat with limited arm talent, the defense attacked upfront to squash the Cincinnati offense on two drives in particular with a turnover on downs, and a Nikai Martinez interception as well as two red zone stops. He finished completing 16 of his 22 passes with 217 yards with a touchdown and a pick.
The change-up quarterback, Brady Lichtenberg, wrapped up throwing five times and connecting on three with 50 yards. One of Lichtenberg’s two drives ended when his receiver Xzavier Henderson fumbled in the red zone. William Wells forced the ball loose which was recovered by Jason Johnson.
UCF’s offensive struggles kept the the Bearcats in the game after leading by two scores at the half 14-3. The Bearcats converted 4-of-12 on 3rd down including a 3rd and 15 with 7:36 left in the 3rd quarter where Cincy took the lead for the second time in the game 17-14.
Conversely, a familiar face from the Bearcats perspective is Knights’ running back RJ Harvey. Harvey secured the win in the “Bounce House” with a touchdown run in 2022 and reprised his role as a Bearcat nightmare in Cincy’s house.
His second of three touchdowns accounted for what would be the final lead change of the contest. His final score in the fourth quarter extended the lead to keep the Bearcats at bay. In that final 15 minutes, the Knights were a perfect 3-of-3 on 3rd down offensively.
Making the Grade:
Special Teams: D+
Mitch McCarthy bombed a huge 64-yard punt on his first opportunity this game pinning the Bearcats at their three-yard line. After that, he averages 36 yards a punt for the remaining three.
Combine that with an awful shank from Colton Boomer on a difficult 47-yard attempt and the punt cover team extending a Cincy drive with a penalty makes for a rough day. That being said, they did manage to field the onside kick to close out the victory.
Let’s get the tough part out of the way first. Once again, the defense allowed two 100+ yard ground gainers. Corey Kiner carried the ball 19 times for 114 yards and their final touchdown while Ryan Montgomery with only eight carries turned in 113 yards with a score as well.
That being said, the Knights' defense only allowed two touchdowns in the Bearcats’ five red zone attempts and denied the two-point conversion that sealed the win. Tre’mon Morris-Brash turned in 2.5 of the team's five sacks on the night.
They surely bent, but didn’t break.
RJ Harvey is amazing at football. His 4th straight 100+ yard game. A career-high 164 yards on 20 carries with three trips to the end zone. Easily the UCF Knights MVP on the season and I don’t think it’s up for debate.
The air attack did enough in support but was relatively mediocre. Plumlee finished his night under center delivering 13 completions on 23 throws for 165 yards without being sacked while rushing 13 times for 53 yards and a score. Cincinnati did their part to make UCF look good with eight penalties for 75 yards. One of those was a 15-yarder for unsportsmanlike conduct in the first quarter that resulted in the ejection of the starting safety.
The ironically named Bryon Threats made contact with an official that earned him a trip directly to the showers. Despite that, the passing game and UCF’s 3rd down conversion percentage (33%) in the first three quarters left plenty to be desired.
The fourth quarter was when the offense finally took control and Plumlee got two of the final three 3rd down conversions to make the score 28-20.
Next week marks the penultimate home game in 2023 where they host the Oklahoma State Cowboys fresh off of beating the Oklahoma Sooners. UCF hopes to take advantage of a letdown in the “Bounce House” to keep bowl game hopes alive.