For the second straight week, UCF was showcased on weeknight national television at the Bounce House. And for the second straight week, the Knights made a statement in a dominant victory. Fueled by excellent execution on both sides of the ball, UCF strung together one of the most lopsided results in AAC history by decimating Temple in 70-13 fashion for the annual Space Game.
Legendary coach Paul Brown once said, “You can learn a line from a win and a book from defeat.” And even more can be learned from a scoring margin separated by 57 points. That being said, here are five takeaways from Thursday night’s action in Orlando:
John Rhys Plumlee has a potent deep ball in his arsenal
John Rhys Plumlee winning the Week 1 starting job came as a surprise to some UCF fans after Mikey Keene guided the Knights to a 7-3 finish to 2021, including a memorable Gasparilla Bowl win over Florida. Plumlee hadn’t played quarterback since 2019 for Ole Miss and spent the last two seasons at wide receiver after the Rebels opted for Matt Corral as the chief signal caller.
Three years removed from the position, it seemed there would be a bit of an adjustment period in Plumlee’s return to quarterback, and there was. Plumlee took his early season lumps in a 16-of-31 showing 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 footing in the second half of the SMU game, and the quarterback has looked like All-AAC caliber talent since.
If Plumlee completing 20-of-29 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns wasn’t enough of a statement, the dual-threat quarterback one-upped it Thursday night. Against Temple, Plumlee connected on 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 flung a 68-yard bomb into the hands of speedster Ryan O’Keefe and two offensive snaps later, he tested his arm once again by mailing a 64-yard bomb in the direction of Kobe Hudson. Plumlee additionally delivered a 25-yard touchdown strike to Hudson in the second quarter in a play set up by a beautiful pump fake.
Plumlee extended plays and looked for check downs when necessary, but his ability to unleash this degree of verticality in UCF’s offense is a game-changer for the Knights. Due to Plumlee’s rapid improvement in the aerial department as of late, the Knights are now 11th nationally scoring offense to match their 11th ranking in scoring defense.
E.J. Warner gave a glimpse of his potential
Even after a 70-13 blowout, there can be positives for the losing squad. Quarterback E.J. Warner played sensational in the first half, and his level of preparation and execution kept Temple competitive through the midway point of the second quarter. Warner connected on 12 of his first 16 passing attempts, firing for 150 yards and a touchdown.
The true freshman showed tremendous poise on 3rd-and-long situations, extending several Temple possessions by going through his progressions and making the right downfield read. And when Warner was firing on all cylinders, it wasn’t much dink-and-dunk, but rather, a series of 10+ yard throws past the sticks. By conducting three scoring drives in Temple’s first four series, Warner had his Owls trailing 14-13 at the 6:00 mark in the second quarter. The youngster avoided taking a sack and didn’t commit a single turnover. For a freshman not named a Week 1 starter, he has already shown considerable improvement each week and based on his first half, Temple has something special in Warner, the son of Super Bowl champion quarterback and NFL MVP Kurt Warner.
UCF defense refuses to take a game off
In nine straight games, not a single opponent scored more than 20 points. There is only one team in college football which can claim this streak, and it’s UCF. The Knights established an offensive centric brand when they rose to national prominence in the Scott Frost and Josh Heupel eras, but in Gus Malzahn’s second year at the helm, UCF fields one of the most consistent defenses in the country.
Not a single team has cracked three touchdowns on UCF since Nov. 13, 2021. That streak appeared to be in jeopardy in the first half when Temple flew down the field on its first two possessions to notch 10 points on the Knights. But UCF quickly reassured spectators its prowess on that side of the ball. The Knights stifled the Owls’ run game to 2.2 yards per carry and forced a completion rate hovering below 55 percent. UCF didn’t even generate a momentum-swinging turnover or sack in 60 minutes of action — instead, the defense proved its consistency by recording stop after stop. A shutout was observed in the second half, and that shutout was even sustained by the second unit which received substantial run in the fourth quarter.
The most impressive part of UCF’s defense is its fortitude in the red zone, where it has only allowed six field goals and five touchdowns on 21 opponent attempts this year. With the group remaining incredibly poised in the red zone week after week, this unit allows UCF to separate itself from most of its AAC peers, making the Knights viable contenders for their first conference championship appearance since 2018.
Temple’s rebuild is going to take patience
It was an eye-opening start to year one of the Stan Drayton era at Temple. On a Friday night showdown in Durham between two first-year head coaches, Mike Elko and the Duke Blue Devils left zero doubt in a 30-0 evisceration of the Owls — which was 24-0 at halftime. Temple fared 4-15 in the previous two seasons, so it was evident the program was in for a rebuild, but significant progress was demonstrated in the following weeks. The Owls recorded a 28-0 shutout over UMass to separate themselves from the cellar of college football and also came within two points of knocking off an improved Rutgers team.
They entered the UCF game ranked top 20 in a multitude of defensive categories, including scoring defense. Temple hadn’t allowed north of 30 points this season, but it yielded 35 to UCF in a single half. And in the third quarter when the Knights were launching deep balls, the Owls simply had zero answer and the end result was a 70-burger for UCF. Temple struggled defending against the run and every time the Knights had a receiver on an island, it was free yardage for Malzahn’s team.
Temple seemed to have its defense solved through the first five weeks, but some aspects on that unit need to be reevaluated after Thursday’s performance. And on the other side of the ball, the Owls rank fifth-to-last nationally by scoring 14.7 points per game, so there’s a lot more to be desired offensively. There is plenty of room for growth in both units, and it is clearly going to take time to build something special in Philadelphia. Drayton was handed an arduous rebuilding project, and that construction will continue beyond 2022, so Temple fans must remain patient as the Owls’ season continues next Friday night vs. Tulsa.
The Space Game is one of college football’s best new traditions
One reason we all love college football is the pageantry. Clemson players exit the bus, run down the hill, and touch Howard’s Rock. Penn State packs nearly 110,000 fans decked in white for its annual Whiteout primetime game. And Oklahoma rolls out the Sooner Schooner before every kickoff.
In a sport which often glamorizes the ways of the past, creating a modern tradition in college football isn’t easy, but UCF pulled it off in spectacular fashion. In 2017, the program launched the idea of the Space Game, donning space-themed uniforms and rebranding under its former name — the Citronauts — in order to highlight the university’s ties with NASA and the space program.
Thursday night marked the sixth iteration of the Space Game and the sixth different variation of the alternate uniforms that accompany the game (UCF is now 6-0 in this annual event). Walking around campus pregame, it was fascinating to see how UCF students and alumni rallied around the idea of the Space Game. Citronauts gear and astronaut apparel were especially prevalent in the student section, and overall, it created one excellent presentation — ideal for a nationally televised Thursday night game on ESPN. And even quarterback John Rhys Plumlee got in on the fun, arriving at his postgame press conference wearing a spacesuit.
UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee arrives to his postgame press conference wearing a spacesuit. pic.twitter.com/P4Y6gCD0HP— Steve Helwick (@s_helwick) October 14, 2022
After the annual buzz UCF generates with the uniforms and the intergalactic theme, the Space Game is one of the college football’s greatest traditions that originated in the 21st century.