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UCF Falls Short in Big 12 Opener at Kansas State

by Justin Wilson

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Faced with the challenging task of playing the reigning champions in its Big 12 Conference opener, UCF football was up for the assignment but a strong Kansas State second half helped the Wildcats earn a 44-31 victory Saturday night at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

Following a 46-yard touchdown pass from Timmy McClain to Kobe Hudson to give the Knights a 24-21 lead in the third quarter, Kansas State responded with 24 consecutive points to pull away for the win.

“Congratulations to Kansas State, we knew they had a really good team," said UCF head coach Gus Malzahn. "Really felt like we were right in the middle of the game until midway through the third quarter. This shows us where we’re at. We’re going to have to play really good, we’ve got to play disciplined. We didn’t do the things that it takes to get a quality win against a really good opponent on their home field.”

After a Kansas State field goal to knot the game at 24-24, the Knights were forced to punt and nearly forced K-State to punt on its next drive, but a pair of costly penalties extended the drive and gave the Wildcats new life. Kansas State quarterback Will Howard scored on a two-yard rush to put the Wildcats back in front 31-24 a few moments later.

UCF looked to cut into the deficit, but the Knights’ field goal attempt missed wide right. From there, Kansas State orchestrated a 13-play, 65-yard drive that amassed 6:05 to pull ahead 37-24 after DJ Giddens’ fourth rushing touchdown of the day.

The Knights turned the ball over on downs on the next possession deep in its own territory and the Wildcats capitalized on the great field position, as Howard found the end zone rushing for the second time on the day.

RJ Harvey scored late in the fourth quarter on a one-yard rush, but UCF couldn’t get any closer as Kansas State spoiled UCF’s debut in the Big 12.

“We did some good things, we just didn’t do what it takes to win.”

For the third consecutive game, Hudson surpassed 100 receiving yards to mark the first UCF player since Jaylon Robinson in 2020 to record three straight games with 100 or more yards. The Pine Mountain, Georgia, native tallied 138 yards on five catches with a pair of touchdowns. Hudson is the only player in the Big 12 with three 100-yard receiving games this season.

McClain recorded a career-high three TD passes, as he connected with Hudson twice and also found Harvey for a 27-yard touchdown strike. Johnny Richardson averaged 12.7 yards per rush with six carries for 76 yards, headlined by a 48-yard long.

Defensively, linebacker Jason Johnson notched a season-high 12 solo tackles to lead all players in the game. Lee Hunter had six tackles with a tackle for loss and a pass break up, while Nikai Martinez also logged six stops.

Entering the game as the nation’s top offense, UCF didn’t have any trouble moving the ball offensively but had a couple of miscues that proved costly.

“We gotta go back and clean some things up, I still believe we’ve got a really good football team. We just have to do things better.”

For the fourth consecutive game, the UCF defense forced an interception as Corey Thornton jumped in front of a Howard pass to record his second interception of the season and third of his career.

UCF made a few changes on the offensive line, as redshirt freshman Caden Kitler made his first career start at center, transfer Amari Kight started at right tackle and freshman tight end Randy Pittman Jr. also earned his first start.

The Knights will return to action next weekend when they host Baylor in their Big 12 home opener at FBC Mortgage Stadium. Kickoff is slated for 3:30 p.m. ET and the game will be broadcast on Fox Sports 1.