It was the classic teacher versus pupil matchup in Orlando as UCF’s Gus Malzahn took on his former offensive coordinator, SMU’s Rhett Lashlee. Lashlee served as Malzahn’s OC at Springdale HS in Arkansas, Arkansas State, and Auburn. While both coaches are known for their high scoring offenses, SMU and UCF came out sluggish by their standards in the first half. SMU appeared to be the team that had the momentum and went into halftime with a 13-10 lead.
So how did UCF end up winning 41-19? Whatever Guz Malzahn had to say during his halftime speech, it definitely worked. The lopsided second half where UCF scored 31 unanswered points mostly came down to the reemergence of WR Ryan O’Keefe and UCF’s dominant defense.
O’Keefe was expected to play a major part in UCF’s offense this season. As a junior, O’Keefe had over 800 yards and seven scores. He finished the season as the Knights leading receiver in their Gasparilla Bowl victory over Florida. However, O’Keefe was off to a disappointing start to this season with less than 10 receiving yards against Georgia Tech and Louisville despite numerous targets.
That drought came to an end against the Mustangs. First, O’Keefe burned a defender off the line on a go route and made an impressive catch for a 23-yard TD. However, O’Keefe wasn’t done showcasing his speed. The receiver had his longest play in two years as he turned on the afterburners for a 58-yard TD on a jet sweep.
However, UCF’s 31 second half points were put up unanswered because of the Knights’ vastly improved defense. Last year, UCF gave up 55 points on the road to SMU. This year, UCF came into their game with a top 10 ranked scoring defense. UCF recovered a fumble, snagged an interception, and forced a safety while shutting down Rashee Rice and Tanner Mordecai in the second half.
SMU scored only once in the second half as time expired. Lashlee called a timeout at the UCF two-yard line with one second remaining. Boos rightfully rained down in the Bounce House as the Knights were up 28 and UCF’s team and coaches were already on the field celebrating. After the field of play was cleared, SMU’s QB scrambled in for a touchdown against UCF’s second and third string to the tune of even more jeers from the crowd. Unfortunately for Lashlee, calling a tasteless timeout to run one more play wasn’t even his worst coaching decision on the night.
All week long, Lashlee preached living to fight another day to his QB. Avoid risky throws on home-run plays and hit your checkdown. Throw the ball away on third and long instead of throwing an interception. However, the head coach made some risky decisions himself in the second half that turned the tide in favor of the Knights. On SMU’s first drive of the second half, they opted to go for it on fourth down from their own 30-yard line and were unsuccessful.
After UCF scored a touchdown to make it 24-13, SMU went for it on fourth down again. This time they were at UCF’s 19-yard line. Instead of opting for a field goal that would have made it a one score game, Mordecai fired a pass for Rice that wound up incomplete and the Mustangs turned the ball over on downs.
Meanwhile, veteran coach Gus Malzahn showed what can happen when you play the field position game instead. UCF could have gone for it when they were on SMU’s 44-yard line. Instead, Malzahn opted to play it safe and attempted to pin the Mustangs deep. Punter Andrew Osteen kicked a perfect ball that was downed at the four-yard line. The move paid immediate dividends as UCF turned up the pressure on Mordecai and he was brought down for the aforementioned safety. If the safety that made the score 26-13 in UCF’s favor wasn’t effectively the end of the contest, that happened two plays later when Ryan O’Keefe scored his 58-yard touchdown to put the Knights up three scores.
After their victory, UCF are now on a three game win-streak prior to their game next weekend against Temple. UCF has to like their chances at making a run towards an AAC title game due to their balance. Their scoring offense and scoring defense will both have a chance to be ranked within the top 20 after this weekend’s games play out.
Meanwhile, it is a much different story on SMU’s sideline. The Mustangs are now on a three game slide after opening up the season 2-0. While Mordecai and Rice have the ability to keep their team in any game, there is massive concern on the defensive side of the ball. SMU are giving up 39 points per game during their skid.