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Replay: Knights Had One Job—and They Accomplished It

by John Heisler

As UCF football coach Gus Malzahn stood in front of his team at halftime Saturday, an awful lot of things hung in the balance for the Knights as they clung to a 13-10 advantage over a four-win Houston team:

--Would UCF win to push its record to 6-6 and prompt a program-record eighth straight postseason opportunity?

--Would Malzahn still be able to say his teams played in bowl games in every season he has been a head coach?

--For that matter, how many active coaches have been to bowl games each of the last 12 years?

Malzahn had made it clear this amounted to a one-game season. Beat Houston and the questions above all received affirmative answers.

Forget John Rhys Plumlee’s knee injury that helped put a damper on the Knights’ midseason Big 12 struggles.

Forget the earlier challenges of stopping Big 12 running games.

Forget Colton Boomer’s hiccups at Texas Tech—and even those from the first half Saturday when he missed an extra point, missed one field-goal attempt and had a second blocked.

Forget all the talk about the Baylor game or any others the Knights should have, could have, might have won.

None of that mattered.

Beat Houston in UCF’s final 2023 home game on a beautiful 72-degree afternoon and the Knights would extend their season—no small achievement considering none of the other three Big 12 newcomers will play in a bowl game.

As Malzahn spoke to his players at intermission, he made certain they knew UCF had the ball first to begin the third period—with a chance to take a two-score lead.

Then it all unfolded as well as Knights fans could have hoped:

--UCF scored touchdowns on its first two third-period possessions.

--The Knights forced Houston to punt on the Cougars’ first two second-half drives (the first punts of the day by either team).

--Plumlee connected on 85 percent of his passes for 253 yards, Kobe Hudson caught a career-high nine of those throws and RJ Harvey ran for more than 100 yards for the sixth time in seven games.

--Meanwhile, the UCF defense limited Houston to five first downs and 73 total yards in the final two periods combined.

It was that simple. The Knights won 27-13.

UCF defensive coordinator Addison Williams talks often to his players about how every Saturday they have a chance to change their identity.

After three wins in their final four games, the Knights will have one more opportunity to do just that.

“You’ll remember this day for the rest of your lives,” offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw offered before the game.

“BE PRESENT! RELENTLESS EFFORT! HAVE FUN!” wrote Williams on the defensive board.

“Get ready to play fast as crap,” added Malzahn.

“Here’s the deal. Get ready to bring our own energy. Give them something to cheer about. I want guys bright-eyed, flying around, picking each other up. 

“It’s a big day for us.

“Let’s get those seniors out on a high note.”

The normally pass-happy Cougars ran the ball six straight times to start the game and drove 75 yards in eight plays to lead 7-0.

UCF answered with its own touchdown march (including four completions to Hudson), but Boomer’s point-after attempt hit the upright.

Houston came right back with a 60-yard possession ending in a field goal.

UCF’s next drive included completions of 18 yards to Hudson, 21 more to Hudson, 13 to tight end Randy Pittman and finally 28 on a memorable TD scamper by Xavier Townsend. That made it 13-10 for the home team.

After a Corey Thornton interception, Boomer missed from 42 and--after reaching the Houston eight in the final minute of the half--Boomer’s short field-goal try was blocked.

The Knights still led and had 272 total yards at the break, but they certainly had left some pints on the field in the opening two periods.

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“We’re here to win the darn game,” Malzahn challenged his team at halftime.

“We’re going to run the ball, take some shots and finish this.”

Added Williams, “They gotta earn everything they get moving forward. Leave it on the field. It’s your last time on this field.”

The Knights wasted no time following the script.

On the first play of the second half Plumlee found Javon Baker for a nifty 57-yard run and catch to the Cougar 24.

Two plays later Harvey scooted 21 yards to the end zone for a 20-10 UCF advantage.

Houston could not advance past its own 37 (thwarted by a nine-yard Tre’mon Morris-Brash sack) before punting.

Plumlee ran for 24 yards, Harvey added 15 and then two more into the end zone to make it comfortable at  27-10.

UCF outgained Houston 147-50 in the third period and then allowed only 23 yards in the final 15 minutes.

The Cougars added a field goal with 10 minutes to go to end the scoring, and UCF then ate up more than seven minutes with its next drive to eliminate any late Houston options.

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For those Knights playing on the FBC Mortgage Stadium grass for the final time, there were memories worth savoring.

There will be other times to analyze exactly what the first season of Big 12 competition has meant for UCF.

“Bowl eligible!” shouted Malzahn as his players straggled into the locker room, many of the veterans not quite ready to depart the scene of their collegiate moments in the sun.

“That was hard fought. At halftime that was a game. Then you guys went out there and got it done.

“I couldn’t be more proud of you. Now we get extra practices and everything else that goes with a bowl.

“Enjoy this.”

Then Malzahn invited all the seniors up front for a series of “booms.”

In a few more weeks, UCF will have one final chance in 2023 to showcase its identity.

And maybe, just maybe, a chance for a few final booms.