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Keene, UCF defense snap Cincinnati’s AAC streak in 25-21 finish

After 19 consecutive wins over conference opponents, Cincinnati drops its first AAC contest since November 2019.

Cincinnati v UCF Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

UCF was the standard. The Knights won 19 consecutive games over AAC opponents from 2017 to 2019, collecting two conference championships and two New Year’s Six bowl appearances over the timespan. But an unceremonious, unofficial passing the torch took place at Nippert Stadium the night of Oct. 4, 2019 when Cincinnati stunned a ranked Knights team in 27-24 fashion.

For the following three years, Cincinnati became the standard. The Bearcats qualified for two consecutive New Year’s Six bowl appearances as a supplement to two conference championships. Cincinnati tied UCF’s AAC record of 19 consecutive wins over league foes, and carried that win streak into a highly-anticipated Saturday contest in Orlando.

The streak is now over. Thanks to a commanding defensive presence and the heroics of backup quarterback Mikey Keene, UCF slid past Cincinnati in a 25-21 thriller at the Bounce House. The Knights’ win over the No. 20 Bearcats signified the program’s first triumph over a ranked opponent since November 2018, when UCF took down Cincinnati in the same venue to gain control of the AAC.

UCF head coach Gus Malzahn earned his first ranked victory as head coach of the Knights by knocking off No. 20 Cincinnati.
Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee was removed from the contest in the first half after suffering a scary blow to the head. Head coach Gus Malzahn believed Plumlee suffered a concussion per Jason Beede of the Orlando Sentinel, forcing the Knights to shift their strategy at quarterback. Mikey Keene started 10 games for UCF in 2021 and compiled a 7-3 record as a starter, but the true sophomore hadn’t fielded a single snap in 2022.

Yet, when Keene’s number was called, the experienced backup delivered in promising fashion. The Chandler, AZ native guided UCF into Cincinnati territory on all five of the Knights’ second half drives. The first two possessions of the third quarter resulted in red zone fumbles, depriving the Knights of points in golden opportunities against an elite Cincinnati defense. And both running backs who fumbled quickly made up for their errors by contributing to the scoring effort.

But Keene ensured there would be returned trips to the promise land. The quarterback completed an efficient 15-of-21 passes for 176 yards, moving the sticks five times with his arm on UCF’s two fourth quarter touchdown drives. Upon reaching scoring position, the running backs delivered. With 4:36 remaining in the contest, goal line sensation Isaiah Bowser punched in his 11th touchdown of the year to hand UCF an 18-13 advantage.

Cincinnati recollected itself for the go-ahead touchdown roughly 90 seconds later when running back Ryan Montgomery exploded for a 39-yard touchdown. But to cap off Keene’s final poised drive of the game, RJ Harvey spun through a pair of defenders en route to a 17-yard touchdown run with 48 ticks left on the game clock.

UCF RB RJ Harvey rushed for a career-high 84 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner, in a stellar day against Cincinnati.
Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the Bearcats tried to salvage their AAC win streak in those 48 seconds, they were quickly met with major resistance. A 20-yard sack pushed them into panic mode, and Cincinnati faced an improbable 4th and 30 from its own 5-yard line on its final snap of the evening. While Cincinnati entered Saturday as the FBS leader in sacks and tackles for loss, UCF won the battle in the trenches in Orlando. The Knights produced four sacks compared to the Bearcats’ one, and no sack was more important than Josh Celiscar’s in the third quarter which resulted in a safety.

The safety handed UCF a 12-6 third quarter lead, but it was at that point Cincinnati’s offense woke up. Capitalizing on one of the red zone fumbles, quarterback Ben Bryant rallied his troops to march down the field and claim their first lead of the game. Bryant found tight end Josh Whyle in the end zone for a 13-12 edge, as Whyle surpassed Brent Celek for the most touchdowns in program history by a tight end.

The passing game clicked for Cincinnati more than the rushing attack, serving as a stark contrast to what the Bearcats’ experienced in their three previous AAC contests. Bryant moved the ball 298 yards through the air on a 25-of-45 showing, frequently connecting with Tre Tucker (10 receptions, 110 yards) to move the sticks. But as suggested by Bryant’s throw count, Cincinnati faced plenty of third-and-long situations because the running game didn’t produce ideal results on initial downs. Excluding sacks, the Bearcats generated 76 yards on 14 carries, but 39 of those yards were accumulated by Montgomery on his crunch-time fourth quarter rushing touchdown.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Central Florida
Cincinnati WR Tre Tucker snagged in 10 receptions for a season-high 110 yards as the game’s leading receiver Saturday.
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

The calling card of the Bearcats in the Luke Fickell era is typically the defense, and 2022 was no exception to that trend. Cincinnati came into this game ranked 18th overall in passing defense and 29th in rushing defense, along with its exorbitantly high sack numbers. But the defensive juggernaut allowed 505 yards to Malzahn’s UCF offense — the most surrendered by the program since a November 2019 game against East Carolina. While star inside linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. performed well in an 11-tackle, 1.5-TFL showing, a lack of pressure from the rest of the defense allowed Keene and the running backs to move the ball with ease.

The Knights’ first win over Cincinnati since 2018 opens up the AAC race, as well as a New Year’s Six bid. The Bearcats remain one of the major players in the chase for the conference championship with a 6-2 overall record and 3-1 AAC mark, but now, UCF regains new life at 6-2 overall and 3-1 in the league, with a monumental tiebreaker over Cincinnati. Tulane (7-1 overall, 4-1 AAC) and Houston (5-3 overall, 3-1 AAC) are the other squads toward the top of the standings. A clearer picture will emerge after UCF visits Memphis next Saturday while Cincinnati hosts Navy.