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UCF defense launches Knights to 24-7 victory over Memphis

Knights record six sacks and force four turnovers in the lowest scoring matchup vs. Memphis in history.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 22 Memphis at UCF Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When UCF and Memphis line up on opposite sidelines, expect a barrage of points from opening kickoff to final buzzer. After all, the average point total of the previous four meetings was 93.5.

But Friday night was a hardly recognizable entry into the series history books. In a rare defensive slugfest, UCF (4-3, 2-2 AAC) forced four turnovers and generated six sacks to put away Memphis (4-4, 1-3 AAC) in a 24-7 result. It marked the lowest scoring matchup between the AAC rivals in their 16th ever meeting.

News circulated prior to kickoff that Memphis’ true freshman quarterback Seth Henigan would miss Friday night’s action due to an upper body injury sustained from the Navy game. With the sixth leading passer in the country sidelined, Memphis called upon LSU transfer Peter Parrish to captain the FBS’s 10th most productive offense. Thus, both teams functioned without their Week 1 starters at quarterback.

Parrish brought a different dynamic than Henigan as a scrambling quarterback opposed to a traditional pocket passer. The quarterback dazzled with his legs from time to time, but UCF’s immense pressure prevented the redshirt sophomore from sustaining drives. Defensive end and team captain Big Kat Bryant led the Knights with three of the unit’s six sacks in a collective backfield invasion. Even in instances when UCF couldn’t get to Parrish, the duress caused other issues for the Memphis offense including a trio interceptions — two via deflected passes in the end zone.

Active hands were a theme for UCF in the victory. Defensive backs Davonte Brown, Divaad Wilson, and Dyllon Lester all were recipients of Memphis turnovers, and plenty of other Parrish’s throws collided with the hands of Knight defenders. Justin Hodges was responsible for three pass breakups and tallied a career-high six tackles in a breakthrough performance for the young nickelback.

Despite featuring the nation’s 22nd leading rusher on the offense, Memphis surprisingly shied away from running back usage. Lead halfback Brandon Thomas only fielded five attempts for 19 yards out of the backfield, including Memphis’ lone touchdown of the night — a 9-yard scamper in the early second quarter. The Tigers handed the pigskin off eight times the entire night as Parrish acted as the primary ball carrier. The deviation from the running backs caused the Tigers to air it out 48 times to 12 different receivers. Without Henigan in the lineup, the passing game was rather sporadic at 4.5 yards per attempt and the result was the program’s lowest scoring output since 2014.

Last October when UCF played Memphis, Dillon Gabriel obliterated the Tiger secondary with 601 yards and five touchdowns. An exact antithesis of that passing performance transpired Friday night, and the Knights’ quarterbacks combined for 80 passing yards and two touchdowns. True freshman Mikey Keene started the contest and matriculated down the field with tempo on the opening drive, in traditional UCF fashion. Keene finished the sequence with a touchdown strike to Brandon Johnson, but the offense couldn’t sustain that rhythm through the rest of the night.

Kentucky transfer Joey Gatewood typically serves as the wildcat quarterback since Gabriel’s injury and entered Friday night with just one passing attempt as a Knight. Gatewood rotated into the contest with Keene throughout the night. Following a muffed punt by the Tigers, he capitalized on the field position by hitting a motioning Ryan O’Keefe on a 13-yard touch pass to hand UCF a 14-0 advantage.

With the passing game limited to under 100 yards, the centerpiece of the Knights’ offense was transfer halfback Isaiah Bowser. In his second game back from injury, Bowser operated as a workhorse with 26 carries converting into 111 yards. After almost two quarters of scoreless action, Gus Malzahn decided to get more creative with the run game, featuring more option-style pitches and reverses. Utilizing the speed of O’Keefe on a 31-yard jet sweep, the Knights finally re-entered the end zone toward the end of the third quarter for a 21-7 lead.

UCF shut out Memphis completely in the second half and returned to the win column after suffering its worst loss since 2015 six days prior. The Knights reverted to +.500 territory, and a trip to Philadelphia looms for Halloween weekend as the team hopes to win their fifth straight matchup over Temple.

Meanwhile, Memphis has tied its most losses in a regular season since 2013. At 4-4, bowl eligibility is becoming less of a certainty after the Tigers’ 3-0 start. Ryan Silverfield’s team looks to regain health during the bye week before a date with undefeated SMU on Nov. 6.