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Replay: Welcome to the Big 12, Knights

by John Heisler

The Knights had heard it a thousand times over the last two years.

“Welcome to the Big 12.” 

It finally came to fruition Saturday night in Manhattan, Kansas. UCF played its first Big 12 Conference football game on a balmy, breezy evening on the Kansas plains.

The ever-gracious Kansas State faithful couldn’t have been more fan-friendly to their Knight counterparts—at least until the game started.

The Wildcat football team had a different definition of hospitality.

UCF parlayed a couple of monster plays in the passing game—a pair of Timmy McClain bombs to Kobe Hudson, the second of which gave the visitors the lead less than two minutes into the third period.

Then Kansas State spoiled the Knights’ party plan.

The Wildcats scored on every possession in the second half, responding with 23 consecutive points.

UCF hung in for long stretches, but the home team had the more productive running game—and the Knights had no particular answer for Kansas State running back DJ Giddens (207 rushing yards and four rushing TDs, plus eight catches for another 86 yards).

The Wildcats won it 44-31.

Welcome to the Big 12, indeed.

“It doesn't matter how we win. We just gotta win,” challenged UCF offensive line coach Herb Hand a few minutes before kickoff.

“Know what is required—whatever it takes.”

“This is about getting physical from the first snap,” said offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw. “The team that wants it the most is going to win. We’ve got to be road warriors—be smart in situational football.”

Concluded head coach Gus Malzahn, “We’re ready to play our best game. Remember what we talked about. Stay together, pick each other up. Let’s get after these guys.”

A big matchup would be the UCF offensive line—with new starters at center and one tackle and guard slot—against a Kansas State run defense allowing only 50 yards per game.

The Knights had early answers after McClain ran for a dozen on UCF’s first play from scrimmage and Johnny Richardson added 48 more on the second.

That all came after Kansas State drove 75 yards for the opening points.

But when McClain connected with RJ Harvey for a 27-yard scoring pass coming off a Corey Thornton interception, the visitors led 10-7 with two minutes to go in the first period.

Then the Knights lost a fumble in between two long Kansas State TD drives before McClain found Hudson for 69 yards to trim the deficit to 21-17.

When Kansas State missed a 26-yard field goal attempt in the final 10 seconds, UCF seemed to grab some momentum.

The biggest disparity? The home team had 317 yards at intermission (107 rushing yards by Giddens) and ran 21 more plays than UCF in those first two periods.

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“The bottom line is we can’t turn the football over,” Hinshaw said, noting the two miscues by UCF in the opening half.

Added defensive coordinator Addison Williams, “It’s gonna come down to execute and tackle. We took their best shot. Now we gotta step it up.”

Said Malzahn, “Hey guys, we knew it was going to be a dogfight. 

“Protect the football. If we don’t turn it over we’re gonna win the game. We’re going to make an impact play and win this game.”

Richardson ran the second-half kickoff back 51 yards and on third and 10 McClain found Hudson again for 46 yards and seven more points. Just 1:20 into the third period UCF led 24-21.

But the home team had most all the answers from there.

Giddens ran for 18 on the first play and 31 on the next. A field goal from 30 tied the contest at 24 with 9:33 left in the third quarter. 

After a UCF punt, Kansas State marched 85 yards to take the lead, twice benefitting from 15-yard Knight personal-foul penalties.

After a missed UCF field goal from 52, Kansas State drove 65 more yards for a two-score lead. Then when the Knights could not convert on fourth and 20, quarterback Will Howard scampered 31 yards down the home sideline for a 20-point Wildcat advantage.

Harvey’s TD with three seconds left created the final margin.

McClain threw for three scores for the first time in his career—and Hudson became the only Big 12 player with three 100-yard receiving games. Linebacker Jason Johnson made a dozen tackles.

But Kansas State scored every time it had the ball in the final two periods and finished with 536 total yards. The home team almost doubled UCF’s rushing total while converting nine times on 15 third-down attempts.

The Wildcats played their possession game to perfection, running 23 more plays than UCF.

“Let this loss fuel you,” said captain Lokahi Pauole to his teammates. “There’s a lot of football left.”

Said Malzahn, “Here’s the bottom line.  We got beat by a pretty good team. We were right in the middle of it until the third quarter—then we couldn't get off the field and we couldn't get points.

“Let’s get back and fix our stuff. We’ve got a good football team. It is what it is. Give them credit. Now we know what it feels like.

“We just got beat tonight. Give them credit—they played better than us tonight.”

Kansas State’s last Big 12 outing had been its 2022 title game victory over TCU.

As the Knights found out, the Wildcats were conference champs for a reason.

UCF now has officially been welcomed to the Big 12. 

Malzahn’s crew tries again in league play Saturday at home versus Baylor.

The Knights will attempt to show that their version of hospitality only goes so far.