Replay: Knights Rushing to Potential Glory

UCF radio play-by-play veteran Marc Daniels kidded the other day that Knight offensive lineman Sam Jackson is in his 14th season playing for his team.
The number is actually six—it just seems like it should be higher considering Jackson is one of a handful of current UCF players who were part of the Knights' consecutive unbeaten regular seasons in 2017 and 2018.
That experience gives Jackson the cachet to ruminate on the Knights' current run of success that added a monstrous exclamation point Saturday in New Orleans as UCF won a football game in a ranked opponent's stadium for the first time in nine years.
The Knights did it with a trail-blazing rushing effort that simply overwhelmed the 16th-rated Green Wave by a final 38-31 count. Their 336 ground yards marked a season high—and equaled 136 more than Tulane had allowed in any game in 2022 (the Green Wave came into the game ranked 11th nationally in scoring defense and 16th in total defense).
So, as his teammates celebrated madly around him, Jackson stood and multiple times and matter of factly  uttered a comment that seemed to sum up what the Knights had just accomplished:
"It's a grown man's game."
By all accounts there should have been uncertainty in the UCF camp coming into this matchup against first-place Tulane.
The Knights were missing three defensive starters—captain and linebacker Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste and veteran safeties Divaad Wilson and Quad Bullard, all three casualties of the win at Memphis the previous Saturday. True freshman Kam Moore started (for the first time) in Jean-Baptiste's spot (and forced a fumble and had a tackle for loss).
Then there was the quarterback question—with John Rhys Plumlee having missed the previous six quarters of play for UCF after being bounced by Cincinnati.
In some ways this was a stage not all that foreign to Jackson and this veteran Knight roster. Maybe it was a bit new to a Tulane program that had not been ranked itself and also played host to a rated opponent in 73 years.
"It's a championship game," said defensive coordinator Travis Williams before it began. "It's gonna be an event.
"No matter what, rise up for your brothers. No matter what they do, this is a heavyweight bout for 12 rounds. Be ready to throw haymakers."
Knight head coach Gus Malzahn preached patience to his offense: "Bring you're A game. It'll be two, three, four yards early. Then we'll eventually wear these guys out and it'll be six, seven and eight."
He could not have been more on the mark—other than the way Plumlee started the contest.
"We're ready to go," said Malzahn. "Bring that positive energy. Pick each other up through the ups and downs and we're going to whip these guys' butts."
Amazingly, Tulane had not allowed an opponent rushing play of longer than 33 yards in all of 2022. Then, on the fifth play from scrimmage Plumlee dashed 47 yards to the Tulane three to set up a quick field goal.
After a three and out by the Green Wave, Plumlee on the third play of the next possession scampered 67 yards into the end zone.
The game was barely four minutes old and the visitors led 10-0 and had gained 138 yards (Tulane at that point had three).
In retrospect those two plays by Plumlee set the tone, put the Green Wave back on its heels and had to make Tulane wonder if its defensive gameplan might need to better account for what Plumlee obviously could do.
Green Wave back Tyjae Spears came right back with a 69-yard run of his own (26 yards longer than any other run allowed by the Knights this season) and the score became 10-7.
UCF kept pounding. The Knights in workmanlike fashion drove 75 yards, produced five first downs and watched Isaiah Bowser waltz the final two yards untouched on third down. The visitors led again by 10 and already had piled up 223 net yards (168 on the ground).
The Knights missed a golden chance to lengthen the margin after Moore forced a fumble and set UCF up at the Tulane four. But Plumlee's fourth-down throw from the one was knocked down.
RJ Harvey opened the next UCF opportunity with a 14-yard gain and accounted for 45 of 85 yards on the drive that Plumlee finished with an eight-yard scoring throw to Javon Baker for a 24-7 edge.
A roughing-the-kicker penalty on a missed Tulane field-goal try kept the Green Wave alive for a second score.
The 24-14 UCF halftime lead was more than encouraging—but it could so easily have been greater, if not 31-7.
Said Malzahn at intermission: "That was a great first half. But now it's time to play."
Added offensive line coach Herb Hand (his pupils had run for 230 yards in the opening half): "We gotta come out with lots of juice and get back to pounding their butts. Whatever it takes. Finish it! Finish it!"
From Plumlee came this: "Whatever we gotta do, I want to be dancing in this locker room."
"Here's what you got," finished Malzahn. "We went on the road and took their momentum away. Now let's go."
Williams' shorthanded defense stopped Tulane at midfield to start the third quarter—and UCF was off to the races. Baker earned two pass interference penalties and Plumlee ended the 85-yard drive with a nine-yard maneuver for a 31-14 edge. At that point, UCF had built nearly a 10-minute time-of-possession advantage with its run game.
Tulane responded with a field goal after driving 53 yards—then added a 73-yard march for a TD that made it 31-24 with 11:39 remaining.
With the pressure on, next came a 16-play drive that UCF fans will never forget:
--On fourth and one from the UCF 34, Bowser in the wildcat threw to Plumlee in stunning fashion down the UCF sideline--and a critical pass interference call set up the visitors at midfield.
--On third and five from the Green Wave 45, Bowser gained nine yards.
--On third and one from the Tulane 27, Plumlee tossed to Johnny Richardson for six yards.
--On third and three at the Green Wave four, Plumlee ran for the first down.
--Bowser ran up the middle for the final yard and UCF led 38-24 with 3:32 to go.
To its credit, Tulane responded with a 75-yard TD drive in less than two minutes to come back within one score. But the Green Wave onside kick attempt went only eight yards.
UCF had to punt with 13 seconds left—but the Knights basically ran out the clock.
The delirious UCF sections (at times it appeared the Knights had as many fans in the stands as did Tulane) loved it on a windy, overcast 55-degree day.
Malzahn really didn't need to say much to his players after the game. They all understood what had just happened—and they know there is work to be done but a solid chance to play host to a final American Athletic Conference title game (likely against the winner of the Cincinnati-Tulane game set for Thanksgiving weekend).
Malzahn went from locker to locker, hugging and shaking hands with his players. The grin never left his face.
Meanwhile, Jackson had made it clear to the UCF media relations staff that he understood why, as a team captain, he at times has been selected to represent the team in postgame interviews after defeats. Just one time Jackson wanted that role after an important victory.
Saturday he got his wish—and he reveled in every opportunity to describe what the UCF run game has become.
Jackson and his veteran teammates will play a final regular-season home game this week against Navy (a team that defeated the Knights a year ago) at FBC Mortgage Stadium. Then it's on to South Florida for the finale.
The rest is to be determined—but three straight wins by a TD or less have set the Knights up nicely.
And, if anyone needs a primer on what this December football stuff is about, Jackson is available.