Thursday night marked UCF’s sixth-annual “Space Game,” where for one home game, the Knights rebrand to their former moniker of the Citronauts and don space-themed uniforms to highlight the university’s ties to NASA and the space program.
While the next NASA launch in the Sunshine State isn’t schedule until mid-November, UCF made sure to schedule its offensive launch Thursday night in the Bounce House. The Knights posted 35 points in the first half to initiate the fireworks, and then completed the mission in the second half to obliterate Temple, 70-13. Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee captained the shuttle for the Space Game by accounting for seven touchdowns — four passing and three rushing — while attaining a career-high 373 yards through the air.
“I feel really blessed to have the opportunity to be in this situation, to have the abilities that I have, and ultimately with the abilities I have, to try to work hard every day. It’s easy to say, ‘Hey, John Rhys has gotten a ton better,’” Plumlee said. “But I think when everybody executes — as far as o-line, running backs, wide receivers — it makes me look good.”
UCF’s offense had been accustomed to slower starts this year, but the Knights rode the momentum from the end of the SMU game and unleashed their strongest first half showing of the year. Head coach Gus Malzahn called a smooth-flowing 10-play, 74-yard drive on the first offensive series of the game. Then the Knights got a degree of explosiveness on their following possession as running back RJ Harvey exploded out of the cannon for a 61-yard run to set up Plumlee with his second rushing score of the opening frame.
“He’s a stud,” Plumlee said of Harvey, who provided 101 yards from scrimmage. “What I usually do is give him the ball and carry out a fake. Then I look back and RJ has spun out of a tackle, made a really good cut, and now he’s plowing through three people. To watch him do that is unbelievable. It opens up a whole lot of things for us offensively.”
The Owls remained competitive early, holding an early 10-7 lead and lurking one step behind at 14-13 in the second quarter, but the Knights’ offense expeditiously kicked it into another gear and eviscerated any remaining hope Temple held before halftime. UCF generated three touchdowns in the final six minutes of the second quarter. Isaiah Bowser punched one in out of the wildcat formation, then Plumlee sent a 25-yard dime to wide receiver Kobe Hudson. Finally, 95 seconds later, the dual-threat quarterback completed his hat trick of rushing touchdowns on a powerful surge to the pylon to secure a 35-13 halftime lead.
“They’re a quality defense,” Malzahn said. “They’re statistically top 10 in most categories and our guys played their best game. When we can run the football and pass the football, we’re a pretty good offense and I think you saw that tonight.”
Temple boasted a top 20 scoring defense prior to kickoff, but the Knights’ completely disregarded that stature by compiling more points in the first half (35) than the Owls’ surrendered in any of their five previous outings (previous high was 30 to Duke). UCF reassured its fanbase of this offensive firepower in the second half, as Plumlee tossed three touchdown passes in the first eight minutes of the half. On two of those scores, the quarterback flaunted his deep ball mechanics, delivering 68 and 64 yard downfield heaves in a span of three offensive plays.
“At the half, we’ve been preaching since last week to be the best second half team in the nation and I think we’re showing that,” said wide receiver Kobe Hudson, the recipient of two Plumlee touchdown passes. “So we just came out with a lot of fire and a lot of enthusiasm and just kept our foot on their neck.”
On the flip-side, Temple entered Thursday night ranked sixth-to-last nationally in scoring offense. But the Owls’ offense looked far more invigorated than it was in the first five games. Led by true freshman quarterback E.J. Warner, the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, Temple found openings in UCF’s secondary to register points on three of their first four drives. The true freshman completed 12-of-16 attempts for 150 yards right out of the gate, allowing Temple to pose a threat on 3rd-and-long situations for the first half.
“I felt like we had a rhythm going on early in the game” Temple head coach Stan Drayton said. “We found a niche in the pass game, got the ball thrown downfield early. That run game is still not quite where I wanted it to be, but there are times where it kept us on schedule and we can build from that.”
The Knights’ scoring defense, which still hasn’t allowed north of 20 points in nine consecutive games, quickly stepped up to the occasion to stifle the Owls in their tracks. After UCF’s No. 1 ranked red zone defense was tested on the first two drives of the game, the Knights started recording their stops before midfield to inhibit Temple’s scoring chances. UCF didn’t rely on turnovers or sacks, accumulating zero of each statistic, but dominance against the run and a steady stream of backfield pressure thwarted the Owls in the final three quarters.
“Coach T (defensive coordinator Travis Williams) was talking to us going into halftime. He was telling us, ‘Let’s go shut them out. That’s not our standard,’” UCF defensive end Josh Celiscar said. “We believe we could have shut them out in the first half, the whole game. We were supposed to keep them to zero points.”
Even after the result was set in stone, the Knights sustained the dominance with the second unit. Quarterback Thomas Castellanos led all rushers with 88 yards, completed 6-of-6 passes, and guided two fourth quarter touchdown drives in his most extended action to date. Meanwhile, the defensive reserves preserved the second half shutout and concocted several fourth down stops.
“They’ve been working hard,” Celiscar said regarding the reserves. “Those guys come to practice every day like we do. They’re young but they still work hard. Going into the future, they’ll be able to get more burn and play more. I believe with them it’s going to be great for our future.”
UCF now sports a 5-1 record and a 2-0 conference standing in its final year wielding AAC membership. With two dominant wins over league members, the Knights have established themselves as major players in the conference race. Functioning in a clear rhythm, they carry their 4-game win streak into a road contest at East Carolina next week — their first game outside of Florida in 2022.
“When you got a new team with a new quarterback, each week we’re learning more,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got some new receivers and new skill guys. We’ve got a lot of weapons I think. We’re starting to get in a rhythm.”
Meanwhile, the lopsided defeat sets Temple in a contrasting direction. The Owls slipped to 2-4 and 0-2 in the conference, prolonging their AAC losing streak to nine games. Under a first-year head coach in Drayton, Temple hopes to learn from this blowout and present a better version of itself for the second half of 2022.
“There’s not a lot of positives to take when you lose like that,” Drayton said. “We’ll get a chance to look at the film and get into some small detail things. Took two times in the red zone and came away with points, so that’s something to take positive from it. They protected the quarterback well all game — I guess you can take that positive out of it. But the ultimate goal is to win and I want to make sure the standard is set that way for our players.”