Replay: Malzahn (Mostly) Enjoying UCF First Times

Ain't it funny how the simplest things in life can make a man?
Little moments that pass us by
Oh, but I remember

                                                            --"First Times" by Ed Sheeran
UCF football coach Gus Malzahn has nearly seen it all in 2021—and there are still three weeks remaining in the regular season.
Debilitating injuries, lightning delays, cardiac finishes both positive and negative (five games determined by seven or fewer points). That list doesn't even count the September announcement that the Knights eventually will be moving to the Big 12 Conference.
And, after posting a season-high 49 points a week ago at Temple, Malzahn likely never guessed his UCF team would punt seven times and have four three-and-outs against a Tulane team that had lost six in a row.
Thank goodness for the UCF defense (Tulane's 279 total yards marked its lowest total of the year) and Knights rookie quarterback Mikey Keene (he completed all seven of his throws in the final period)—both of which have improved by leaps and bounds of late.
It was homecoming weekend at UCF—meaning Malzahn saw his first Spirit Splash event live, despite intensely wet weather conditions Friday.
The Knights' head coach walked away with a souvenir—one of the valued rubber ducks that now sits in his office.
That marked yet another first on a weekend that featured another nail-biting finish (UCF scored with six minutes remaining to hold off the Green Wave 14-10), a crazy rain squall in the game's final moments and a bizarre sideline collision between Malzahn and UCF safety Quadric Bullard that left the Knights' coach limping significantly after the game. "He got me pretty good," allowed Malzahn.
That little rubber duck holds yet another first-time significance—as the UCF victory puts the Knights (now 6-3 overall, 4-2 in American Athletic Conference play) in the bowl-eligible category for a program-record sixth consecutive season.
The Knights have won a modest three in a row—their best streak since doing that a year ago against Tulane, Houston and Temple.
There's a first time for just about everything.
"Be confident out there. We're the team that's getting better," Malzahn told his team before kickoff on a cloudy, breezy, chillier-than-normal afternoon.
"Let's turn it loose."
The Knights did that—after harassing Tulane quarterback Mike Pratt on his fourth-and-one throw that went awry from the UCF six (broken up by Bullard).
After three Isaiah Bowser runs, Keene unleashed a perfectly-placed heave to Ryan O'Keefe (who loved the fact he merited only single coverage on that play) good for 53 yards (longest play of the year for UCF).
Three plays later O'Keefe caught a 15-yard touchdown pass, Keene at that point was five of six throwing for 80 yards—and O'Keefe had caught four of those for 74. The 94-yard drive marked UCF's longest of 2021.
But the Knights punted on their next three possessions and then Keene lost the football in the final two minutes—allowing the Green Wave two shots at a 42-yard field goal, the first one wiped out by a late UCF timeout call. Both missed right.
For the second straight week, the UCF defense pitched a first-half shutout (first time that happened in back-to-back games since 2013). 
"You stop the run, we have fun," said UCF defensive coordinator Travis Williams at the break. His charges allowed 39 net rushing yards in the first two periods and only 25 total yards in the second quarter.
"Nobody cares about the first half. We came here to play 60 (minutes)."
"It's a dogfight," said Malzahn.
"We're gonna have to be successful running the football and then hit some shots."
Tulane promptly flipped the script on its head—scoring on consecutive drives (nine plays, 80 yards for a TD, then 54 more yards for a field goal and a 10-7 lead with four minutes left in the third period). The visitors managed 142 of their net yards in that third period alone.
Keene opened the ensuing drive with a 50-yard completion to Brandon Johnson. But an 11-yard TD run by Johnny Richardson was nullified by a holding call—and Daniel Obarski ended up missing a 42-yard field-goal attempt of his own.
An unsung hero for the home team turned out to be punter Andrew Osteen who dropped one that was downed at the Tulane one with a dozen minutes remaining (after UCF could not convert following a punt block).
A three-and-out by the UCF defense allowed the Knights to take over at the Green Wave 38. Keene hit O'Keefe for a first down on a third-and-10 call—then handed to running back Mark-Antony Richards for a successful fourth-down conversion.
On second and 17 Keene found a wide-open Johnson for 23 yards and the game-winning points.
UCF held off Tulane on two more possessions—with a Bullard sack emerging as the big play after the Green Wave had navigated to the Knight 40 in the final minute.
UCF controlled the ball for 9:13 of the final period, despite a single net rushing yard.
The Knight defense now has allowed 7, 7 and 10 points over its last three games—its best stretch since a 7-7-0 trio in 2014 (wins over Tulsa, SMU and USF).
"Give yourself a hand," Malzahn told his team in the locker room.
"In the second half of the season we're 3-0. We got a real defense now. Super job with special teams. Offense was a little ugly, but we got it done.
"We overcame a touchdown being called back--and you found a way to win. It was a complete team win."
UCF's head coach won't delude himself into qualifying the triumph over Tulane as one of the Knights' all-time greatest wins.
Still, that little yellow duck is likely to merit a special place on the trophy-laden shelves in his office. The memory of what it represents may make his knee feel a little better.
The way the 2021 campaign has unfolded, more firsts lie dead ahead.
I can't wait to see everything that's yet to be
I can't wait to make a million more first times
                                                            --"First Times" by Ed Sheeran