Replay: Quest for Big 12 Success Remains Unfulfilled

by John Heisler

This one seemed to have all the trappings of a memorable UCF football weekend:

*A Homecoming matchup with a West Virginia squad coming off successive Big 12 defeats

*A pregame concert appearance by DJ Diesel, better known as former Orlando Magic great Shaquille O’Neal, to stir the crowd

*A chance for a first conference win on the Knights’ home field, coming off a narrow yet confidence-building loss a week ago at unbeaten Oklahoma in a game UCF felt marked its best overall effort of 2023

*A chance, as well, to build more second-half momentum after a turnover-free effort in Norman

For gosh sakes, it was even UCF head coach Gus Malzahn’s birthday.

What better reason to blow out the candles in the faces of the Mountaineers.  

But there was no celebratory cake in the home team locker room Saturday.

West Virginia again punched above its weight, running for 286 yards and five touchdowns on the ground while also forcing four UCF turnovers, most by the Knights in 2023.

Malzahn’s team never led and trailed by 20 points late before finishing on the short end of a 41-28 score.

The search for that first Big 12 victory will continue for another week.


“You’ve got one job,” emphasized UCF defensive coordinator Addison Williams.

“Get the call--and execute.

“Start fast, win third down—and no regrets.”

Added offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw, “They are going to pressure. Convert third downs. It’s about ball security—hold onto the football, be disciplined and we will celebrate as a team.

“Play for 60 minutes together and we will end with a victory.”

Offensive line coach Herb Hand challenged his linemen:

“There’s nothing easy about this. If we have a little adversity, we grind it out. 

“But, at the end of the next three hours, I want to be in here dancing with you guys!”

Offered Malzahn, “I want you to play loose. I want you to play your guts out for your brothers – let’s flat get after them.”

West Virginia came into the game leading the league in time of possession based on having run the football more times than any other Big 12 squad.

That didn’t change Saturday.

The Mountaineers’ first three possessions covered 75, 71 and 64 yards (requiring nine, 10 and 10 plays, respectively) while taking up 4:03, 4:59 and 4:19 on the game clock.

The visitors took the opening kickoff the length of the field for a touchdown and never trailed.

UCF had two 75-yard TD drives of its own, and neither team punted until the final minute of the first half.

But two thrown interceptions by the Knights didn’t bode well for the home team’s fortunes—especially when the first one occurred after the ball caromed off the foot of Javon Baker into the waiting arms of West Virginia’s Beanie Bishop Jr.

Still, at halftime, the Knights appeared poised to wrestle back control of the game.

“They have not stopped us. We’re in great shape,” noted Malzahn, pointing to his team’s 254 total yards by intermission.

“No turnovers and we win games,” said Hand.

“Only we have stopped ourselves,” said Hinshaw.

“The last two series we played our best brand of ball,” added Williams. “This is our opportunity to win a game for this team. It’s up to us.

Said quarterback John Rhys Plumlee: “Let’s be the best in the world at doing your job this half.”

But less than three minutes into the third period, Plumlee threw his third interception of the afternoon—and the visitors turned it into a 68-yard TD drive that put West Virginia up by 10.

A blindside rush by the Mountaineers pried the ball loose from Plumlee later in the third period, the visitors needed only 27 yards to add another TD—and West Virginia ended up scoring 17 points in the final quarter.

UCF ran the ball for only 27 yards after intermission as the Knights fought to keep pace.

West Virginia ran the ball 50 times and amassed a 12-minute advantage in time of possession.

UCF never punted nor threw an incompletion until the fourth period.

West Virginia scored three TDs on drives coming after UCF miscues.

RJ Harvey had a third-straight 100-yard rushing game (that had not happened since 2012 for UCF), while Plumlee completed 25 passes to match his career high in that category.

UCF had two more first downs than West Virginia, 13 more total yards and converted nine of 12 third-down attempts (the same third-down rate as in the Knights’ opener against Kent State).

None of that mattered.

“Bottom line, we didn’t play well enough to win that football game,” Malzahn told his team.

“We didn’t deserve, it, that’s the way it is.

“We’re not going to beat anybody turning the ball over four times.

“We didn’t get off the field defensively.

“That team was better than us today. We did not get it done. There’s no reason to look at it any other way.

“Bottom line, we gotta get better. We gotta figure out a way to get the next one.”

The Knights had hoped to give their coach a reason for a celebratory birthday dinner.

Instead, it was West Virginia that punctured UCF’s balloon.