Replay: Knights Can’t Quite Finish Cards (Again)

It had all the makings of a UCF Friday Night Lights-style moment.
A prime-time matchup and a sellout crowd with a Power 5 opponent in Louisville. A repeat performance against a Cardinal team that delivered a tough-to-take late blow a year ago just when the visiting Knights thought they were in position to win. Memories of that evening in Louisville when a string of key injuries helped sabotage Gus Malzahn's first UCF team.
Returning Knight players weren't shy about suggesting they probably owed Louisville one from 2021. This was a red-letter date on the calendar by anyone's admission. And they knew they had to start by keeping multi-talented Cardinal quarterback Malik Cunningham in check.
Then Louisville did it again.
After a first half in which consecutive Isaiah Bowser scores (the sixth career time he has notched at least two touchdowns) allowed a seven-point UCF halftime lead that could and probably should have been larger, the Cardinal defense rose up in dominant fashion.
The Knights struggled mightily on the offensive side after intermission—and the visitors managed just enough points to hold off UCF 20-14.
It marked only the third UCF home loss in 34 games and the first time Malzahn walked out of FBC Mortgage Stadium without winning.
"We're ready to play," Malzahn told his team before it started.
"Play fast. It's about being physical and protecting the football.
"It's real simple, guys. We've been waiting for this game a long time. Once that ball is kicked, impose our will on these guys."
The early going suggested a defense-optional night.
Louisville took the opening kick and needed 10 plays to travel 75 yards (71 of those in Cunningham's column) for a lead.
But the Knights did the same—navigating 10 plays of their own over 80 yards to tie it at seven, with quarterback John Rhys Plumlee accounting for 61 of those.
But, after those two quick TDs, the next 14 combined possessions produced only a single repeat performance. What looked like a score-fest similar to 2021 (when Louisville scored late to win 42-35), this one developed into a taut defensive struggle that included a dozen punts.
After Louisville missed a field goal from 41 yards out, the home team responded with an up-tempo push that featured a 22-yard completion to Javon Baker, a 28-yard rush by Plumlee and a second run by the Knights' signal-caller for 15. When Bowser finished from the three out of a Wildcat look, the Knights led 14-7 less than four minutes into the second period.
After a Louisville fumble (forced by Quadric Bullard, recovered by Divaad Wilson), UCF reached the Cards' 38 before stalling. A later drive reached the Louisville 15 before a missed field goal (after a 57-yard TD pass to Johnny Richardson was negated by holding).
The Knights allowed 281 net yards in the opening two periods—yet they were in control at halftime.
"Make sure we tackle the guy," offered UCF defensive coordinator Travis Williams at halftime, referring to Cunningham.
"Don't give them anything cheap. After that first drive we played good ball."
Summarized Malzahn, "You did a good job. We're in good shape. It's gonna be about third down. Somebody's gonna have to make a play. Let's finish these guys off."
Then nothing came easy for UCF from there.
The third period featured 15 offensive plays for the Knights and 21 net yards (one first down). The visitors kicked a field goal, then Cunningham got loose for 43 yards and a TD and what proved to be the game-winning points. Two plays after the Cardinals took the lead, Plumlee found Baker for what might have been a 75-yard TD play—except for holding versus the Knights. UCF ended with 11 penalties for 111 yards (Louisville had 96 penalty yards).
UCF simply couldn't find a way to effectively move the football.
Even with its back against the wall, the Knight defense hung tough. It forced a Louisville field goal early in the final period after the Cardinals drove to the UCF 18—and so it remained a one-score game.
But Malzahn's crew could never break through.
After a fourth-down stop near midfield, Plumlee threw to Baker for 24 yards and eventually the home team had a first-and-goal opportunity from the nine. Bowser pushed it as far as the four before Plumlee's fourth-down pass was picked off—though Jaylon Griffin nearly came down with it in the end zone.
Still, the Knights weren't finished. Louisville went three and out and punted—and UCF had a final chance from its own 43. Plumlee hit Baker for 25 yards on first down, but then he threw three straight incompletions from the Louisville 37.
Cunningham did just enough to make a difference—a game-high 121 rushing yards and 195 through the air. Baker exactly matched his numbers form a week ago (five catches, 84 yards), but Plumlee was under pressure much of the second half and was sacked four times (three in the final 30 minutes). The home team over one stretch punted six straight possessions, including the first five after halftime.
Sobering. Disappointing, Frustrating. It had a measure of all of that.
For a second straight year Louisville derailed UCF hopes and dreams.
"We had a lot of adversity—had a couple of touchdowns called back. We didn't win the game and it's game two. What we're going to have to do is grow from it and learn from it," said Malzahn in the locker room.
"We're going to grow together—that's just the way it is. We've got to have a championship mentality and that's who we're gonna be."
A year ago, the Knights had to regroup and find a way to surmount a way-too-long list of injuries after an early loss at Louisville.
UCF has a similar opportunity in 2022—even if it's one it didn't particularly plan for.