Replay: Flying Start for Knights in ‘22

Presumably sugar plums had been dancing in the heads of UCF head coach Gus Malzahn, new quarterback John Rhys Plumlee and the rest of the Knights in their dreams about how the 2022 season might begin.
Malzahn privately allowed that he felt his team had been ready to play the opener versus South Carolina State (with 18 starters returning from a unit that won six of its last seven contests in 2021) for several days.
Yet with a quarterback who hadn't started a game at that position since 2019—plus a handful of other transfers (albeit mostly experienced ones) in first-team roles—an opener always produces some level of anxiety that seeps over into those dreams.
Plumlee and his mates on both sides of the ball, at least on this opening night, wasted little time quelling whatever worries Malzahn—and Knight Nation in general—might have been harboring.
The final score was 56-10 and it really was that one-sided.
Plumlee had thrown for a pair of touchdowns and run for a third in the first 12 minutes of the game.
The defense permitted 29 first-half total yards—none in the second quarter. The Bulldogs' final tally of 91 net yards represented one of the most dominant defensive statistical performances in UCF history.
On both sides of the ball plus special teams, the Knights displayed the sort of game-breaking speed Malzahn and his staff had hoped to showcase.
For at least one humid evening at FBC Stadium, it was a good—maybe a great—Knight.
"Let's go. You're ready to play," Malzahn offered to his squad minutes before kickoff.
"We've worked our butt off to get to this point. I want you to have fun and flat get after them."
Offered defensive coordinator Travis Williams, "Let's be who we say we are."
From there, it was off to the races.
Plumlee had almost never been live between spring drills and fall camp, so this marked the first real opportunity for almost everyone to see how the quarterback's skills would translate on grass.
A little rusty from not having played the position much the last two seasons (instead working as a receiver for Ole Miss in 2020 and 2021)?
It hardly showed.
On the second play from scrimmage, Plumlee displayed why he earned the top job. He avoided the South Carolina State rush, wheeled to his left and found back Isaiah Bowser for a 12-yard gain and a first down.
It wasn't spectacular, but it showed Knight fans--and the Bulldog defense—why Plumlee could present such a challenge.
On the ninth play of that opening drive, Plumlee found Alabama transfer receiver Javon Baker near the goalpost for a 12-yard scoring play.
On the next UCF possession, Plumlee found Florida transfer tight end Kemore Gamble for 30 yards for a first-play TD.
Plumlee began the third Knight opportunity (after a Divaad Wilson interception) with a 45-yard connection to Ryan O'Keefe, then finished the six-play, 81-yard drive with an ultra-savvy 17-yard tackle-breaking run to the end zone that might have been as impressive as any play all night.
Just like that, it was 21-0.
The visitors showed how much respect they had for Malzahn's crew by faking punts on their first two fourth downs (the second turning into a bizarre kick that came past the line of scrimmage). After one period, the total yardage contest stood 186-29 in the Knights' favor.
The second period had to have frustrated South Carolina State even more. The Bulldogs ran only nine plays—rushing four times for a single yard and completing one of five pass attempts for one negative yard.
But the most impressive UCF defensive moments in that quarter came, first, when O'Keefe chased down the Bulldogs' Jeblonski Green Jr. at the Knights' two after an 80-yard fumble return. From there, the visitors could muster only a field goal.
By intermission, Plumlee had thrown for 231 yards and run for 62 more.
"Stop the run!" exhorted defensive coordinator Williams at halftime.
"Keep stopping the run! Continue to play our brand of ball. It's not done yet. Keep it up. Get 'em to third down."
"We're in great shape," praised Malzahn. "Keep the hammer down. We had one turnover and the defense did a great job.
"Let's put this game away. It's going to be a good time."
The Knights survived one early second-half hiccup on a blocked punt by South Carolina that turned into a next-play, 26-yard TD pass for the Bulldogs' only other points.
Plumlee capped a 77-yard march with an 18-yard scoring throw to speedster Johnny Richardson to make it 35-10.
Richardson added a nifty 31-yard run on the next drive—and this time Bowser finished it from the one for a 42-10 differential. The Knights ran for 111 yards in the third period alone.
After a spectacular Xavier Townsend punt return was mostly called back by penalty, O'Keefe bolted for another 33-yard gain—and Plumlee found reserve tight end Zach Marsh-Wojan for his first career reception, 21 yards to the back of the end zone.
UCF's final points came when safety Quadric Bullard blocked a South Carolina State punt and recovered it in the end zone.
A boisterous UCF locker room postgame scene summed it up.
"I couldn't be any more proud of you," said Malzahn. "You did what you had to do. We had a little adversity, and we picked each other up.
"You're going to see on film we got a chance to be a big-time team."
Plumlee threw for  a personal high of 308 yards (and a career-best four scores) and ran for another 86 to lead the roster in that category, too.
Bowser added 83 ground yards and two TDs.
Baker had five grabs for 84 yards, while Gamble added three for 82—plus O'Keefe, Bowser and Jaylon Griffin all had three receptions.
The defensive tackle numbers were spread evenly—with reserve linebacker Walter Yates finishing with seven tackles to lead that list. Captain Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste added five, and the Knights ended with nine tackles for loss and broke up five pass attempts.
UCF finished with final advantages of 29-9 in first downs and 600-91 in total yards while running 25 more plays than the visitors.
South Carolina State had little to no success on third down with its two-for-16 conversion rate.
It's only one game. Yet Malzahn and his staff learned what they wanted to know. They'll clean up the 10 penalties—one of the few areas that on the surface needed some attention.
Next week in a home date with Louisville will be another marquee challenge against a team that came back to defeat UCF a year ago at the very end.
But on this one evening in Orlando, it was a good Knight.