UCF just passed a pressure-packed test, one that coach Gus Malzahn admittedly would have preferred his team not have to take.
Now the Knights, No. 25 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, have to prove they can win on the road.
UCF (6-2, 3-1 American Athletic Conference) travels to Memphis (4-4, 2-3) on Saturday afternoon.
The Knights are coming off a 25-21 home win over conference power Cincinnati, which was 20th in the AP poll a week ago and was a CFP playoff team last season. Leading 10-6 in the third quarter, UCF twice fumbled in the red zone.
Those missed opportunities loomed large when they trailed 13-12 entering the fourth.
Led by not-so-ordinary backup quarterback Mikey Keene, UCF capped a 77-yard drive with a touchdown with 4:36 left to take an 18-13 lead, surrendered a TD and two-point conversion about 1 1/2 minutes later and trailed 21-18, then responded again with RJ Harvey’s 17-yard scoring run with 48 seconds left.
“During the game, I wish we had scored (instead of the turnovers) and won by 17 points,” Malzahn said Monday. “But after it played out like it did, I’m glad it did that, ’cause that’s what our team needed.
“In college football, there’s very few times that you get a chance to, (when) the pressure is really on, either get it done or you don’t. Are you going to respond? And our team responded in a couple situations like that.”
The Knights have won five of their past six games, but the loss in that bunch was a 34-13 setback at East Carolina on Oct. 22, when they had four turnovers and no takeaways.
“I really feel strong that we’ll learn from that experience. There’s more parity in college football than ever before, and every week you need to bring your ‘A’ game, and obviously we didn’t do that. Lesson learned,” Malzahn said.
UCF’s biggest question is who will be at quarterback on Saturday. Starter John Rhys Plumlee took a huge hit from a Cincinnati defender in the second quarter and then appeared wobbly as he tried to return to the field. He was removed with an apparent head injury.
Plumlee won the job this season over Keene, the 2021 starter as a freshman, and has thrown for 1,883 yards and 11 touchdowns and run for a team-high 532 yards plus seven scores in 2022. UCF enters the weekend fifth in the nation in total offense (510.2 yards per game) and 24th in scoring (35.8 points per game).
“We’ve got two guys, I think, obviously we can win with,” Malzahn said. “I think everybody knew that coming in, but we’ll just take it day by day with John Rhys right now. … We’ll see what happens.”
The Tigers, meanwhile, have lost three straight games: by one point to Houston, by two points in four overtimes at East Carolina and by 10 at Tulane, which sits 19th in the CFP rankings.
What Memphis lacks in momentum, it has in scheduling. It is coming off a bye week.
“Any time you have a bye week that’s really Week 9, talk about a lot of football,” Tigers coach Ryan Silverfield said. “Training camp started three days earlier this year, so you think about it, we’ve been really going at it since Aug. 1.
“(The bye) gave us the chance to do some modified practices, make sure we are healthy, and I feel comfortable with where we’re at from a health standpoint.”
The Tigers are preparing for both Plumlee and Keene.
“Both have a unique skill set,” Silverfield said. “Coach Malzahn is going to do what he does on offense, regardless of who the quarterback is, but they do have different things they bring to the table, so we’ve got to be ready for that as part of our preparation this week.”
Memphis quarterback Seth Henigan, a sophomore, has thrown for 2,236 yards and 15 touchdowns with five interceptions. He has been sacked 24 times.
–Field Level Media