For the second week in a row, UCF was featured on national television weeknights at the Bounce House. And for the second week in a row, the Knights made a statement in a dominating win. Fueled by excellent execution on both sides of the ball, UCF notched up one of the most lopsided results in AAC history by decimating Temple 70-13 for the annual Space Game.
Legendary trainer Paul Brown once said, “You can learn a line from a win and a pound from a loss.” And even more can be learned from a separate 57-point scoring margin. That being said, here are five takeaways from Thursday night’s action in Orlando:
John Rhys Plumlee has a powerful deep ball in his arsenal
John Rhys Plumlee winning the starting job in Week 1 came as a surprise to some UCF fans after Mikey Keene guided the Knights to a 7-3 finish through 2021, including a memorable Gasparilla Bowl win against Florida. Plumlee hadn’t played quarterback since 2019 for Ole Miss and spent the past two seasons at wide receiver after the Rebels moved to Matt Corral as their lead caller.
Three years out, it looked like there would be a little adjustment period in Plumlee’s return to quarterback, and there was. Plumlee took his early-season pieces in a 16-of-31 performance against Louisville and an 8-of-16 performance against Georgia Tech, combining for 180 passing yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions in those non-conference contests. But the former rebel found a spot in the second half of the SMU game, and the quarterback has been looking like an All-AAC-caliber talent ever since.
If Plumlee completing 20 of 29 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns wasn’t enough, the dual-threat quarterback upped it Thursday night. Against Temple, Plumlee had 18 of 22 attempts for a career-high 373 yards and four touchdowns — while also contributing three rushing scores. His deep ball mechanics were the most impressive aspect of the seven-touchdown explosion. In the third quarter, he tossed a 68-yard bomb into the hands of speedster Ryan O’Keefe and two offensive snaps later tested his arm again by sending a 64-yard bomb in the direction of Kobe Hudson. Plumlee also delivered a 25-yard touchdown strike to Hudson in the second quarter in a play set up by a nice fake pump.
Plumlee extended plays and sought checks when needed, but his ability to unleash that degree of verticality in the UCF offense was a game-changer for the Knights. Due to Plumlee’s rapid improvement in the aerial department lately, the Knights are now 11th nationally to tie their 11th ranking on defense.
EJ Warner gave a glimpse of his potential
Even after a 70-13 loss, there can be positives for the losing team. Quarterback EJ Warner played sensationally in the first half, and his level of preparation and execution kept Temple competitive until the middle of the second quarter. Warner had 12 of his first 16 passing attempts, shooting for 150 yards and a touchdown.
The true freshman showed terrific balance in 3rd and long situations, extending several Temple possessions as he raced through his progressions and made the right read on the court. And when Warner was firing on all cylinders, it wasn’t much dink-and-dunk, but more of a series of throws 10+ yards in front of the sticks. Putting on three killer drives in Temple’s first four series, Warner had his Owls trailing 14-13 at 6:00 into the second quarter. The youngster avoided taking a bag and didn’t commit a single turnover. For an unnamed freshman starting in Week 1, he’s already shown tremendous improvement each week and based on his first half, Temple has something special in Warner, the champion quarterback’s son. of the Super Bowl and NFL MVP Kurt Warner.
UCF defense refuses to withdraw a game
In nine consecutive games, not a single opponent has scored more than 20 points. There’s only one college football team that can claim that streak, and that’s UCF. The Knights established an offensive-centric brand when they gained national prominence in the days of Scott Frost and Josh Heupel, but in Gus Malzahn’s second year at the helm, UCF put in place one of the most consistent defenses in the country.
Not a single team has had three touchdowns on UCF since Nov. 13, 2021. That streak looked to be in jeopardy in the first half when Temple flew across the field on his first two possessions to score 10 points on the Knights. But UCF quickly reassured spectators of their prowess on that side of the ball. The Knights smothered the Owls’ running game to 2.2 yards per carry and forced a completion rate below 55%. UCF didn’t even generate a turnover or sack in 60 minutes of action – instead, the defense proved their consistency by recording stoppage after stoppage. A shutout was seen in the second half, and that shutout was even backed up by the second unit receiving a substantial run in the fourth quarter.
The most impressive part of the UCF defense is its grit in the red zone, where it has allowed just six field goals and five touchdowns on 21 opposing attempts this year. While the group remains incredibly ready in the red zone week after week, this unit separates UCF from most of its AAC peers, making the Knights viable contenders for their first conference championship appearance. since 2018.
The reconstruction of the temple will require patience
It was a telling start to the first year of the Stan Drayton era at Temple. In a Friday night showdown in Durham between two first-year head coaches, Mike Elko and the Duke Blue Devils left no doubt in a 30-0 gutting of the Owls – who were 24-0 at halftime . Temple had gone 4-15 in the previous two seasons, so it was obvious the program was going to be rebuilt, but significant progress was shown in the following weeks. The Owls posted a 28-0 shutout against UMass to part ways with the college football cellar and also came within two points of knocking down an improved Rutgers team.
They entered the UCF game ranked in the top 20 in a host of defensive categories, including scoring defense. Temple hadn’t allowed more than 30 runs this season, but he gave up 35 to UCF in a single half. And in the third quarter, when the Knights threw deep balls, the Owls simply had no response and the end result was a 70-burger for UCF. Temple struggled to defend against the run and every time the Knights had a receiver on an island, it was free distance for Malzahn’s team.
Temple seemed to have his defense resolved in the first five weeks, but some aspects of that unit need to be reassessed after Thursday’s performance. And on the other side of the ball, the Owls rank second-to-last fifth nationally in scoring 14.7 points per game, so there’s a lot more to be desired offensively. There’s plenty of room for growth in both units, and it’s clearly going to take time to build something special in Philadelphia. Drayton has been given an arduous rebuilding project, and that build will continue beyond 2022, so Temple fans should remain patient as the Owls’ season continues Friday night against Tulsa.
The Space Game is one of the best new traditions in college football
The pageantry is one of the reasons we all love college football. The Clemson players exit the bus, run down the hill and touch Howard’s Rock. Penn State gathers nearly 110,000 fans dressed in white for its annual primetime Whiteout game. And Oklahoma deploys the Sooner Schooner before every kickoff.
In a sport that often glorifies the ways of the past, creating a modern tradition in college football isn’t easy, but UCF has succeeded spectacularly. In 2017, the program pioneered the idea of the Space Game, donning space-themed uniforms and rebranding itself to its former name – the Citronauts – to highlight the university’s ties to NASA. and the space program.
Thursday night marked the sixth iteration of the Space Game and the sixth different variant of the alternate uniforms that come with the game (UCF is now 6-0 in this annual event). Walking around campus before the game, it was fascinating to see how UCF students and alumni rallied around the idea of the Space Game. Lemonaut gear and astronaut clothing were especially prevalent in the student section, and overall it made for a great presentation — perfect for a nationally televised Thursday night game on ESPN. And even quarterback John Rhys Plumlee had fun arriving at his post-game press conference wearing a spacesuit.
After the annual buzz generated by UCF with the uniforms and intergalactic theme, the Space Game is one of college football’s greatest traditions born in the 21st century.