UCF’s Comeback Falls Short in AAC Championship Game

NEW ORLEANS – In search of its fifth American Athletic Conference (AAC) Championship, 22nd-ranked UCF football came up just short of achieving its season-long goal as No. 18 Tulane earned a 45-28 victory Saturday night at Yulman Stadium.

The Knights move to 9-4 on the season, while the Green Wave improve to 11-2.

Playing in its first conference championship game, Tulane was able to hold off a late comeback as the Knights cut the deficit to 31-28 with 9:48 remaining in the fourth quarter but the Green Wave responded with a touchdown to regain a 10-point lead and went on to win by 17 points.

"First of all, give Tulane all the credit. They're a really good team and we knew that coming in," said UCF head coach Gus Malzahn. "We didn't play our best, but they had something to do with that. I'm proud of our team and the way we fought back. We got off a tough start, but we fought back and made a three-point game at 31-28 and it was right there before us. Give them credit, they went down and scored to take the momentum back."

Following a tough first half, UCF scored 21 points and compiled 292 total yards but the Knights were unable to slow down the Green Wave offense as they logged 365 yards in the second half to score 28 points to secure the victory.

Tulane started fast in the game, scoring on its first two drives to own a 10-0 lead following the first quarter. UCF grabbed momentum in the contest after a big fourth down stop, as Walter Yates III powered through the Green Wave offensive line to bring down quarterback Michael Pratt for no gain and force the turnover.

The Knights quickly converted the turnover into points, as Isaiah Bowser rushed six times for 19 yards to put UCF within a few yards of the end zone and Xavier Townsend punched it in on a five-yard rush to score his first career touchdown.

A touchdown pass from Michael Pratt to Lawrence Keys III and a 60-yard touchdown run gave Tulane a 24-7 lead right after halftime. After missing most of the first half, as he battled a leg injury, UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee reentered the game in the third quarter and immediately provided the Knights with a spark.

Plumlee found wide receiver Kobe Hudson for a 17-yard touchdown pass to give the Pine Mountain, Georgia, native a team-leading six receiving TDs. The Green Wave answered with a big play, as Deuce Watts caught a short pass and raced 73 yards for a touchdown to make it a 31-14 advantage.

UCF picked the perfect time to pull out one of its special plays, as Plumlee threw a lateral pass to running back RJ Harvey, who then found Hudson for a 49-yard touchdown pass. It was Harvey's first career pass and first touchdown throw.

A few plays later First Team All-AAC linebacker Jason Johnson forced AAC Offensive Player of the Year in Tulane's Tyjae Spears to fumble and Johnson recovered it to give the ball back to UCF at the Tulane 30-yard line. Following a run by Harvey and pass to Javon Baker, running back Isaiah Bowser found the endzone for the 14th time this season, scoring from 10 yards out to pull the Knights within three at 31-28.

Unfortunately, from there it was all Tulane as the Green Wave scored the game's final two scores and kept the Knights from completing their comeback attempt.

Despite being hampered by injury, Plumlee battled and finished the night 21-of-39 for 209 yards with a touchdown. Bowser led the rushing attack with 85 yards on 20 carries with a score, while Hudson brought in four catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns.

Defensively, Jarvis Ware led the Knights with nine tackles and Josh Celiscar tallied three tackles with two tackles for loss and a sack.

UCF will await the bowl selection show on Sunday to learn which bowl game it will play in.