Replay: Knights Can’t Quite Finish the Conversation

Oh, the Knights had their chances.
UCF built a 14-3 lead less than halfway through the first period.
Most of that came via a rousing defensive effort that forced three early three-and-outs by seventh-ranked Cincinnati, limited the visitors to minus-11 rushing yards on their first eight run attempts and saw the Bearcats go zero for four on third downs to begin the action.
Then, the Knights came from behind with a trademark 75-yard touchdown drive that enabled the home team to take a 25-22 advantage into the final period of play.
But it wasn't enough.
Unbeaten Cincinnati simply played the role of ball hog in the final two periods (a monster 22:59-7:01 advantage in time of possession)—and the Bearcats' two fourth-period TDs proved enough for the 36-33 win at the Bounce House.
If UCF Josh Heupel was hoping for some juice from his players and the Orlando crowd, they rewarded him early on.
His Knights took the opening kickoff 75 yards in nine plays—with Dillon Gabriel twice completing third-down challenges with connections to Tre Nixon (in his first action since the Georgia Tech opener) and Marlon Williams. The eighth play of the possession—a 41-yard completion to Jacob Harris that proved to be the home team's largest gainer of the day—was followed quickly by Greg McCrae's short TD run.
Cincinnati quickly responded with a field goal—but UCF took advantage of a muffed punt return by the visitors, with Gabriel finding Williams for a second Knight TD only 7:21 into play. 
Then Heupel's defense made its statement.
None of Cincinnati's next three possessions to finish the opening period produced a first down.  Safety Richie Grant—on his way to 16 tackles—had a tackle for loss. Tre'mon Morris-Brash had a sack and combined with Anthony Montalvo on another tackle for loss.
At the end of the opening period, Cincinnati's rushing attack—tops in the American Athletic Conference and 14th-best nationally (247.1 yards per game)—had produced minus-11 yards and the Bearcats had all of 25 total yards.
But UCF punted on three straight possessions with that 14-3 lead. And the Bearcats seemingly found an answer to the Knights' defense—with Cincinnati's last three first-half drives combining for 211 yards.
The visitors led 19-17 at the break.
The time-of-possession challenge began when the Bearcats held the ball for more than eight-and-a-half minutes on their way to a field goal to open the third period.
Then, just as they had started the first half, the Knights' first second-half drive produced a TD and the lead--with Gabriel hitting his first five throws and finishing the march with a 19-yard scoring toss to Williams.
UCF's defense rose up again to force a Cincinnati punt, and the home team took over on the final play of the third period with a chance to extend its three-point lead.
But the visitors made most of the key plays from there.
After 228 consecutive passes without an interception (dating back to the Tulsa game), Gabriel's aeriel bounced off Williams and was intercepted on the fourth play of the final period. Cincinnati needed only four plays to traverse the 16 yards that gave the Bearcats the lead for good.
After a three-and-out by UCF, Cincinnati applied the back-breaker, driving 71 yards in 10 plays (including a fourth-down run conversion at the UCF 26) for a second fourth-period TD to put the visitors on top 36-25.
With 7:15 remaining, UCF came right back—a key fourth-down pass interference penalty assisting a 75-yard TD drive that ended with Gabriel's 10-yarder to Jaylon Robinson.
But needing a defensive stop, the Knights allowed Cincinnati to drive from its own 35 to the UCF one, essentially running out the clock--as the Bearcats purposefully went down at the one to keep the clock moving.
The visitors prevailed in great part by producing nine first downs and 144 total yards in the final period.
The home team was successful on 11 of 19 third-down conversions—but UCF ran an uncharacteristically low 31 plays in the second half while the visitors were rolling up 273 total yards in those two quarters.
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder completed eight of nine throws to end the second and start the third period—six of those for gains of at least 20 yards.
Meanwhile the Bearcats' defense held UCF to 146 second-half yards, only 44 of those on the ground.
Cincinnati finished with 12 pass plays of at least 15 yards (UCF had only five—only three in the final three periods) and six rushes of at least 10 yards (UCF had three).
"Everybody's disappointed with the end result," said Heupel to his team.
"To win a game like that against a really good football team, all the little things matter. All the little things. When we start doing everything right, we'll win football games like that.
"We resemble a darned good football team. We played like a family. You competed your butts off, you played for another, it wasn't perfect, you kept fighting. You've come a long ways compared to early in the year,
"Be disappointed with this one. Now we've got to do all the little things to win. We're not far off.
"Did we do enough to win tonight? No. But be proud of the effort you put into it."
For Cincinnati (8-0 overall, 6-0 AAC), the win marked the first time the Bearcats had trailed since a September game against Army. The victory at least keeps the Bearcats in the national playoff conversation.
For UCF (5-3 overall, 4-3 AAC), it was another close, frustrating loss. The Knights' six combined losses over 2019 and 2020 have come by an average of 3.1 points (two by one point, three by three points).
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell suggested after the contest his team had made a "statement."
Heupel's group—after an impressive opening argument—simply couldn't add the needed exclamation mark to the final sentence.