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Replay: Knights Tag the Big 12 Board

by John Heisler

No one had to remind anyone associated with the UCF football program how long it had been since the Knights had won a football game (48 days).

No one needed a cue that UCF was still seeking its first Big 12 football triumph.

No one required a rivalry wake-up Saturday—this was Cincinnati, the Knights’ most intense foe, even though the series goes back only to 2015.

And no one had to show highlights of last season’s satisfying victory over the 20th-ranked Bearcats (that boosted UCF into the CFP rankings the next week)—or lowlights from the Knights’ most recent trip to Cincinnati in 2021 when the third-ranked home team built a 35-0 lead before winning 56-21.

It had been long enough that the Knights might have been a little rusty on their postgame victory “booms.” So, they did a few extra for good measure, just to keep in practice.

It really didn’t matter who UCF was playing or how the win was accomplished or what the score was.

What counted was that UCF running back RJ Harvey put forth a career effort running the football, the Knights did not turn the ball over, they finished with nine tackles for loss (a season-high five of those sacks) and they made the game-saving play (with Cincinnati poised to tie the contest with 1:27 remaining) by thwarting the home team’s two-point attempt.

All that was good enough for a 28-26 UCF victory—and, for one Saturday, that’s all that counted.

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“Best game today,” said UCF running back coach Kam Martin. “Wake ‘em up.”

“Make plays, play fast, let’s have energy on the sideline,” said head coach Gus Malzahn.

“It’s play ball time. Let it loose,” added offensive line coach Herb Hand.

Concluded Malzahn before kickoff, “All week we’ve been talking—all I want you to do is play your guts out for the guy beside you. Pick each other up—let’s be a true team. There’s great power in that. 

“Stand up. Let’s start rooting for each other, man. Let’s play our guts out, that’s all I ask. Let the chips fall where they may. Now let’s go after these guys.”

It wasn’t easy for UCF early.

Cincinnati drove 53 yards for a quick field goal and the Knights went three and out on their first possession. Ten minutes into the contest, the home team led 100-8 in total yards and began by completing its first four throws for 49 yards.

After a fourth-down stop by the UCF defense after the Bearcats reached the Knights’ 41, Malzahn’s crew took the lead with a 59-yard scoring drive in which the home team provided half the yards on two major penalties. Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee (he threw only a single pass in the first quarter) took it in from the eight with 20 seconds remaining in the opening period.

UCF provoked a pair of Cincinnati turnovers in the final eight minutes of the half. First William Wells forced a fumble that Jason Johnson recovered after a pass completion to the Knights’ 32. Then, with Cincinnati knocking on the door in the final minutes, Nikai Martinez intercepted an Emory Jones throw at the UCF goal line.

In between, the two teams traded touchdowns—with the UCF version beginning with a 24-yard Harvey run and finishing with a 13-yard Harvey dash.

The Knights allowed 291 yards in that opening half, but the Bearcat miscues permitted the 14-10 UCF lead at the break.

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The Knights had been here before—leading once, tied once and twice down three at intermissions of four of their Big 12 assignments.

“Don’t let up—it’s gotta be our half,” noted UCF captain and tight end Alec Holler. “Start right out of the gate. Finish, finish, finish . . .” 

“We’re in great shape,” added Malzahn. “Let’s just not stop ourselves.

“We’re up on the road. Super job of picking each other up.

“You’re there for your teammates. Keep fighting for your brothers and everything else will take care of itself. 

“Go out there and continue to do that and let’s go out and win this darn game.”

On fourth and three from their own 46, the Knights snapped the ball short to Harvey on a fake punt and he gained 19. But A Colton Boomer field-goal try from 47 yards went left (his first miss in 2023 between 40 and 49 yards after hitting seven in a row).

Cincinnati used a 40-yard throw to Donovan Ollie and a 29-yard Ryan Montgomery run to regain the lead at the 5:19 mark.

But the visitors responded with a 10-play, 85-yard drive to lead 21-17—with Harvey running for 27 on second and 10 and finishing the deal with a 25-yard excursion up the middle. Twice Plumlee converted with third-down runs.

The Bearcats responded with a possession of more than nine minutes, helped by a UCF penalty on a Cincinnati punt. But, after a pass completion to the Knights’ two, Cincinnati endured a false start and then suffered consecutive lost-yardage runs, settling for a field goal that left UCF on top 21-20.

With the game on the line, Plumlee threw 40 yards to Javon Baker to the Bearcat 22. On third and 10 Plumlee found Kobe Hudson on the UCF sideline for 12 yards. Harvey finished it from the one and the visitors led by eight with 2:41 remaining.

Cincinnati needed only five plays and 1:14 to reach the end zone, but Jones’ two-point throw fell to the turf.

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“We exorcized some demons for a bunch of guys in that locker room that were here two years ago,” said Hand when it was over.

Harvey personally had seven double-digit runs (including rushes for 24, 27 and 25) when the Knights as a team had come off three straight games with only a half-dozen by the whole roster. 

Malzahn presented game balls to UCF athletics director Terry Mohajir and UCF president Alex Cartwright. Then Plumlee presented a third to Malzahn

“Here’s what I love,” the Knights’ head coach said “You were all together. You played for each other and there’s great power in that.

“I want you to enjoy this moment. We made history—the first Big 12 win. I’m real proud of you guys.

“And then we’re going to turn that music on.”

Somewhere in there came a couple more “booms.” 

Malzahn admitted Friday on his regular local radio appearance that he had not necessarily been handling the Knights’ lack of Big 12 success well.

Presumably he slept better Saturday night.

Six Big 12 games have taught UCF (4-5 overall, 1-5 in league games) how tough it is to win in this new league.

One road victory Saturday showed the Knights a recipe for how it can be done.