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Replay: Knights Show Who They Can Be

by John Heisler

Remember that scene in The Wizard of Oz where Frank Morgan, playing the wizard, is exposed and says, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

That’s how it is this morning with the UCF football team.

Pay no attention to UCF’s four-game losing streak.

Pay no attention to the Knights’ 0-4 mark in Big 12 play.

Pay no attention to the wide variety of calamities that befell UCF in its frustrating losses to Kansas State, Baylor and Kansas.

Pay no attention to any other numbers that critics think define where the Knights stand.

As UCF head coach Gus Malzahn stated late in his post-game remarks, that was the first half of the season and an open date provided Malzahn, his staff and players the opportunity to assess the Knights’ landscape.

Saturday in Norman represented the beginning of the second half of the season.

It was a new day.

No celebration ensued in the visiting locker quarters after Oklahoma’s come-from-behind 31-29 victory in Norman.

But there was no one pouting, either.

The Knights proved they could take hard looks at their play, go back to basics on defense and fix what had been ailing them.

The real UCF football team? It’s not hidden behind the curtain.

It was on full display Saturday on Owen Field in front of more than 83,000 fans—most of whom thought they had come to witness a romp in the park for the unbeaten, sixth-ranked home side and saw nothing of the sort.

UCF defensive coordinator Addison Williams (he moved from the press box to the sideline during the game Saturday) wrote on the whiteboard, “Reason Why!”

“Why are you here today?” he asked his players. “This is your opportunity to play a top-10 football team.”

Under that top line, he wrote, “DL MUST DOMINATE.”

Below that came, “Make Them Earn It.”

“You’ve got to seize the moment,” Williams concluded.

Said Malzahn just before kickoff, “Here’s the deal We’re here to win the game. Fight your guts out for the guy beside you.

“When we hit that sideline, flip the switch and let’s beat these guys.”

The Knights’ offense began the contest as if it missed the wake-up call for the 11 a.m. local kickoff.

UCF’s first four possessions produced three net yards. The Knights didn’t manage a first down until the final minute of the opening quarter. They finished the opening period having run 15 plays, gaining 15 total yards and never advancing past their own 38-yard line.

Oklahoma wasn’t much better, and two Sooner missed field goals in that initial quarter helped keep the visitors within striking distance.

Then UCF tripled its yardage total on a 54-yard RJ Harvey run to the Oklahoma one on the third play of period number two. After a Sooner unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, quarterback John Rhys Plumlee ran it in from one yard out and the game was tied. At that point, the UCF defense had limited Oklahoma to 23 rushing yards.

A Colton Boomer field goal—the first of his three—made it 10-7 for the Knights with 4:01 to intermission, capping a 76-yard drive.

After a Dillon Gabriel 42-yard scoring pass for the Sooners, Plumlee responded with a bit of trickery, sprinting left and connecting with a wide-open Javon Baker behind the defense for 86 yards and a score at 1:24.

After those 15 first-period yards, the Knights flipped the script with 217 in the second quarter.

Oklahoma’s field goal as time expired left it 17-17 at halftime.

“We’re right where we wanted to be,” said Malzahn. “What did we say? Get to the fourth quarter and we win the game.

“No one gets tired. Squeeze the football. Somebody’s going to make a play to win this stinking game.”

UCF’s defense took over from there, holding the Sooners scoreless for almost 21 minutes to begin the second half.

Quad Bullard intercepted Gabriel on the first possession after halftime and Oklahoma started the second half by running 13 plays for a combined 27 yards.

Boomer added two more field goals from beyond 40 yards.

The Sooners rebounded with a pair of touchdowns at 9:16 and 3:13 for an eight-point advantage.

Then came perhaps the most impressive UCF drive of the season under pressure.

Plumlee threw to Xavier Townsend for 10 and Harvey for five. On third and 15 Plumlee connected with rookie tight end Randy Pittman for 39 yards to the Oklahoma 31.

On the following play, Plumlee zeroed in on Baker for 19 yards to the Sooner 12.

Finally, on fourth and 10, Plumlee hit Baker in the corner of the end zone with 1:16 on the clock.

A swing pass to Townsend in the left flat kept the Knights from tying the game when the home team’s defense closed quickly to make the tackle at the 10.

“I’m extremely proud of you,” Malzahn told his team.

“You fought your guts out. You did exactly what we talked about. I’m proud of the coaches.

“If that’s the best team in the country, we’re really close.

“That’s what we’re going to take away from this.

“We went through a darn storm the last couple of weeks.

“We’re disappointed and we should be, but we had a chance to win the game.

“Now we’re going to finish this thing.”

Plumlee threw for 248 yards (Gabriel had 253). Harvey ran for 101. Baker caught five balls for 134 and two scores. Walter Yates came back from missing the Kansas game to make 10 tackles, while Jason Johnson had nine and Demari Henderson and Tre’mon Morris-Brash eight each.

The UCF defense finished with three sacks and 10 other tackles for loss—with a dozen different Knights involved in those plays.

Against the sixth-ranked team, playing on its home grass and coming off a momentum-grabbing win over Texas, UCF held leads of 10-7, 17-14 (both second period) and 23-17 (fourth period).

But all those statistics, in many ways, are just white noise behind the proverbial curtain.

The Knights have five weeks left to prove they are for real.