Replay: UCF Can’t Find the Storyline

UCF's football trip to SMU offered a plethora of potential storylines:
--A chance for a fourth straight victory (the Knights hadn't done that since 2018) in the "second season," as dubbed by head coach Gus Malzahn.
--An opportunity to defeat a Mustang team that roared to a 7-0 start, but then maybe—just maybe—had looked a slight bit vulnerable in losing the previous two Saturdays on the road versus Houston and Memphis.
--A potential offensive upgrade with the expected return of first-team all-league receiver Jaylon Robinson after he had missed the previous six games.
--Maybe another gold star for the Knight defensive resume after allowing a combined 24 points in those three consecutive wins. 
--And maybe even a feel-good asterisk for the UCF head coach, forced to work from a sideline platform after breaking his leg the previous week in the win over Tulane.
Homestanding SMU, losers of only a single home game (to Cincinnati) over the last three seasons, instead stole the headlines for themselves.
The Mustangs (8-2, 4-2), down a touchdown early to the Knights (6-4, 4-3), reeled off 31 consecutive points on their way to a 55-28 triumph in Dallas.
Malzahn knew his UCF team would need to be aggressive versus an SMU team that already had scored 50 points twice and four times accounted for at least 500 total yards.
"If we're going to be successful on offense, we've got to be physical," he told the Knights at their final meeting at the team hotel.
"We're going to need to be as aggressive in all three phases as we've been all year.
"There are going to be a lot of ups and downs. So what? It's next play mentality."
Malzahn had to love how opportunistic his team was early on.
Ricky Barber made a tackle for loss on fourth and one—and four pass plays later Mikey Keene connected with Ryan O'Keefe for 18 yards and a quick UCF lead.
Six plays into SMU's third possession linebacker Tatum Bethune intercepted a Tanner Mordecai pass and ran it back 23 yards to the Mustang 15. On third and one, reserve signal-caller Parker Navarro navigated the final six yards to make it 14-7 for the visitors with five and a half minutes left in the opening period.
SMU took over from there.
The home team scored on five straight possessions (four of them touchdown drives of at least 51 yards). The Mustangs gained 243 yards in the first period and had 428 at halftime. UCF, meanwhile, accumulated only 31 net yards in the second quarter. SMU had 25 first downs by halftime and never punted in the opening two quarters.
"We're going to go back out there and fight," Malzahn challenged his players at the break.
"I don't care what the score is. Be a champion. We're gonna be men. We need explosive plays and we've gotta run the football.
"You gotta bloody your nose. Somebody make a play."
The Knights did just that to start the second half.
With leading rusher Isaiah Bowser dressed but not participating, Mark-Antony Richards dashed 58 yards up the middle five plays into the third period.
But it didn't prove to be nearly enough. The Knights punted on their next three possessions—as SMU elevated the score to 52-21 a minute into the last quarter.
Richards added a second TD run on his way to 104 rushing yards—but that didn't offset a school-record 36 first downs by the Mustangs.
Mordecai had thrown it 50 times through three periods for 373 yards. An SMU completion with 10:20 to go in the game pushed the home team past the 600-yard mark in total yards.
UCF finished with 10 tackles for loss in its effort to counter the Mustang attack.
"We got our butt kicked," Malzahn acknowledged to his squad once it ended.
"We should be disappointed. We are better than what we did out there.
"That's a good team. But that's not who we are. We've got to take it like men.
"We earned everything that happened out there.
"We've got two home games left and we've got to find a way to win those two games—that's what we're going to do."
For the Knights, it'll be two more chances to create the Bounce House storylines they want to read.