Replay: Not Quite What Knight Fans Expected

Yes, UCF football fans thought they had it all figured out:
--Win a home game against Navy and a road game at South Florida and that would guarantee the Knights would play host to the American Athletic Conference title game for the first time since the unbeaten 2017 and 2018 regular seasons.
--Win the conference title game, likely against either Cincinnati or Tulane (two teams the Knights have defeated in recent weeks) and dream about a potential Cotton Bowl matchup as the Group of Five representative.
That's the sort of heady stuff the triple play of victories over ranked Cincinnati, Memphis and ranked Tulane (the latter two away from home) provided.
Not to mention Saturday was Senior Knight—with an impressive group of veterans led by Sam Jackson, Anthony Montalvo and Alex Ward playing a final regular-season contest at FBC Mortgage Stadium.
The stage seemingly was set—only Navy had other ideas.
The same Navy defense that completely stymied Notre Dame in the second half the previous Saturday appeared again in Orlando.
The UCF defense did not permit a single pass completion and allowed its lowest opponent total yardage figure since the 2022 season opener.
Meanwhile, The Knight offense had season lows for first downs (14), rushing attempts (eight fewer than any other game), rushing yards (46 fewer than any game) and total yards.
The visiting Midshipmen, as is their custom, held onto the football for 19 minutes and 12 seconds more than UCF, and that played a major role in Navy's 17-14 triumph that threw a monkey wrench into that list of Knight hopes and dreams.
"We don't have to do anything magical," said UCF defensive coordinator Travis Williams before the game.
"We just need to punch 'em in the mouth."
Added offensive line coach Herb Hand, "They don't think you can out-execute them. Show them that you can."
Then, for the first time in 2022, Navy scored on its opening possession--10 straight running plays that covered 75 yards.
Maybe the home team should have known what was ahead when a false start ruined the very first UCF offensive play.
Colton Boomer kicked a couple of field goals to make it a 7-6 game, but Navy came right back before the half with another long possession (13 running plays, 84 yards, 6:47 in possession time, two conversions on third down and one on fourth) to take a 14-6 advantage less than two minutes before intermission.
At halftime the Knights had 154 total yards. Navy had run the ball 32 times, while UCF had run it 11 times for a net 47 yards.
"Let's just go out there and execute," said Hand at the break.
"Remember what we're playing for. We're coming out of the locker room on fire. We say we're the best second-half team in the country—now we gotta do it.
"Every play is like gold."
"It's our time, offense," said Jackson. "It's our time."
Concluded UCF head coach Gus Malzahn: "Let me tell you a little secret here. Winning championships is never easy. It's a dogfight right now.
"Whatever we gotta do to win. Make sure you bring your positive energy.
"There may be ups and downs—bottom line, we're gonna win the game!"
The UCF coaches had determined that quarterback John Rhys Plumlee wasn't 100 percent when his final long throw of the first half came up short—so Mikey Keene opened the third quarter (and played the rest of the way).
Keene delivered exactly what the Knight needed, throwing 45 yards to Ryan O'Keefe and 28 to Javon Baker for a touchdown.
Toss in a two-point conversion throw to Baker and in 1:35 UCF had tied the game.
On the next UCF possession Keene coughed up the football on third and four at his own 34. Four plays later Navy kicked a 45-yard field goal (with 8:22 on the clock) that ended the scoring for the afternoon.
On the first five Navy possessions after the halftime break, UCF's defense permitted only 39 combined yards (on 21 plays).
But, after Keene led that opening TD drive in the second half, the Knights never seriously threatened again. Their final five possessions equated to 85 combined yards (on 23 plays).
Navy held onto the football for 20:22 in the second half (only 9:38 for UCF on just 28 plays).
There was a stunned silence in the home team locker room after it ended.
"Bottom line is we got beat," said Malzahn.
"We're gonna have to be men about it. Here's reality--it stinks and I'm really disappointed for our seniors and their last home game and all. We're gonna feel like crap for about 24 hours and we should.
"Reality now is that we got to go to our rival (South Florida) and we gotta win the game. If we do that we (have a chance to) play for the conference championship, which was our goal to begin with.
"That's where we're at.
"Give them credit. We did not get it done. That's the way it happens sometimes.
"We're still a heckuva team, and that's the way we're gonna go about our business.
"We're gonna flip the switch tomorrow and we're going to finish this thing off and we're still going to get that conference championship.
"That's just the way it is. That's how you gotta look at it."
The road to the AAC title game now goes through either Cincinnati or New Orleans (the winner of the Tulane-Cincinnati game Friday will be the host team).
If the Knights earn the other spot—and a victory at South Florida Saturday night is required—UCF will have to do it the hard way.
That's not exactly what Knight fans were thinking over breakfast at the Bounce House Saturday morning.
But UCF's dreams live on.
The Knights simply have had to reinvent them a bit.