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Replay: New UCF QB? No Problem—As Knight Defense Makes It Easy for McClain

by John Heisler

 The minute late Monday morning that UCF football coach Gus Malzahn announced that quarterback John Rhys Plumlee would miss the Villanova game (and possibly more) after injuring his knee on the game-winning drive at Boise State, Knight fans began their collective gnashing of teeth:

--Can next-man-up Timmy McClain fit the UCF offensive puzzle?

--Will anything change about the look of the Knights’ offense with a new (lefthanded) signal-caller in place?

--Will McClain’s experience (nine starts as a true freshman at South Florida in 2021) trump the fact the last of those starts came in November 2021 in Orlando against UCF?

--And, finally, after losing their starting quarterback in the second game of the season for the second time in three seasons, can the Knights catch a break in that department?

No worries.

Defensive captains Josh Celiscar and Jason Johnson (in sharing the team lead in tackles Saturday night) made sure McClain and Knight fans had little to worry about against a Villanova program that has had plenty of historical success at the FCS level and came in at 2-0.

Here’s how the UCF defense set the tone in the first 30 minutes of play:

--one Villanova pass completion permitted in the first half (for one yard)

--a long drive of 17 yards in the first two quarters for the visitors

--no trip past midfield for the Wildcats

--only 24 defensive snaps in the opening half for UCF, an almost unheard-of low total

The Knights ran more than twice as many plays as Villanova in periods one and two combined, led 34-0 at intermission—and more than set the stage for the resulting 48-14 final score.

UCF finishes 3-0 on the non-conference portion of the 2023 schedule—and, other than maybe the question on Plumlee’s injury, it likely accomplished about all it wanted in terms of testing its depth and seeing how all the new transfers and a handful of freshmen would perform in the early going.

After three weeks UCF is the most productive offensive team in the country--and ranks second in rushing while allowing 12 points per game.

Knight fans now will see how all that plays in the Big 12.

“The bottom line is hit ‘em in the mouth—impose our will from the first snap. Ball security, strain every snap, everybody together. 

“Bad things happen? We come together and figure it out,” instructed offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw before the game kicked off.

“Strike these guys again and again and again,” added offensive line coach Herb Hand.

“Let's finish these drives and have some fun tonight.”

On the defensive whiteboard, coordinator Addison Williams wrote “Start Fast” and “Have Fun (Here to play defense).”

Summarized Malzahn, “Guys, it’s real simple. That chip on our shoulders we talked about all during fall camp? Carry it with you out there.

“Stay together. We're a championship football team. Every time we have a chance to prove it and right now is another chance. Let’s get after them.”

A few early possessions may not have looked perfect from a technical standpoint—but they got the job done. McClain led the Knights 14 plays covering 69 yards for a Colton Boomer field goal on the game’s first possession.

The second UCF possession (after a 27-yard Xavier Townsend punt return) produced a touchdown—the first of two by Jordan McDonald out of the Wildcat formation. 

By that time the Knights led 10-0, had run 21 plays (to three for Villanova) and held a 119-1 edge in total yards.

Nikai Martinez set up the next UCF TD with a 42-yard interception return (longest for the Knights in four years) to the Villanova two.

The Wildcats didn’t manage a first down until the final minute of the opening period. They did not complete a pass until about the six-minute mark of the second period (and that one covered one yard and was followed by a third-down Tre’mon Morris-Brash sack).

After an RJ Harvey TD run (he led the Knights with 85 rushing yards and caught a pair of passes), McClain saw a 73-yard scoring pass to Kobe Hudson scuttled by a penalty. No matter. Two plays later he threw a perfect ball to wide-open Javon Baker in the corner of the end zone.

Boomer kicked another field goal in the final minute of the half, the Knights were up 34-0 on the scoreboard and McClain already was an efficient 12 for 18 for 209 yards. UCF held a time-of-possession advantage of almost six minutes—and Knight fans know that seldom occurs. Villanova was 1-for-9 throwing the ball only seven days after Connor Watkins threw for 310 yards and two TDs against Colgate.

At the break UCF led 335-38 in total yards and 209-1 in passing yards.

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“We’re going to keep the good mix going,” said Williams at halftime. “Why did we only have 24 snaps? Because we got off the field on third down.

“Tackle, tackle, tackle. We haven’t done a bad job, but we can do better. Focus and execute and we’ll be in the right place.”

Added Hinshaw, ”The scoreboard does not matter. We just gotta go execute. Score every time we have the ball. I care how we perform, so go after them.”

“Big-time first half,” said Malzahn. “Let’s come out of this locker room and put these guys away. Nobody letting up. 

“I’m proud of you guys. Let’s finish this thing off.”

The second half didn’t produce much drama. 

Harvey made it 41-0 on a 24-yard run to the end zone—while McClain was 7-of-10 throwing for 98 yards in the third period.

Villanova added a pair of final-period scores as the Knights substituted liberally late in the game. McClain finished the UCF scoring with a nifty 36-yard scoring throw to Jaylon Griffin – and freshman quarterback Dylan Rizk in his first action nearly connected with Griffin for a second TD. 

Rizk played the final two series and was 4-for-5 throwing for 28 yards. Nine Knights caught passes, Johnny Ricardson ran for another 51 yards, while McClain added 44 of his own and McDonald 40.

After his career-best night at Boise State, Hudson topped that with six more grabs for 147 yards. Baker added five for 77. Townsend had an electric long punt return for a TD called back by a penalty—and Lee Hunter supported Celiscar and Johnson with five tackles of his own. Morris-Brash, William Wells and John Walker each had four. Walker and Morris-Brash each had a pair of tackles for loss. And first-time sophomore defensive line starter Matt Alexander added a sack. Villanova finished one for 12 on third down.

As important as anything, McClain’s numbers (20 for 28 for 321 yards and a pair of scores) marked career bests.

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“I’m real proud of you,” said Malzahn in the winning locker room. “That’s win number three.  

“All week, people said, ‘Coach, you worried about your team having a letdown after a big win and you lost your quarterback?’ 

“Let me just tell you. You brought it early and you got it done. 

“I don't think they want to play us anymore. You got after them. That was a thing of beauty. You got after the quarterback just the way we talked about it.

“We’re 3-0, congratulations. Now we’re set up for the real season. It’s here. 

“We go on the road, we’re in the Big 12, it’s time to take the next step.”

In one sense, the slate is now wiped clean.

Next stop? Manhattan, Kansas.

Next goal? It’s officially time for Big 12 Conference football for Malzahn and his Knights.