The AAC has held ranked showdowns on recurring occasions in the conference’s decade of existence. But never before had the Big Easy been the center stage of the conference.
UCF (AP No. 22/CFP No. 22) and Tulane (AP No. 16/CFP No. 17) squared off as the only ranked teams in the conference with league title and New Year’s Six visions in mind. But led by a high-powered rushing attack, the Knights exited New Orleans with their second ranked win of the season and never trailed in a 38-31 decision. Now, UCF (8-2, 5-1 AAC) controls its own destiny to host the AAC Championship Game, holding key tiebreakers over Tulane (8-2, 5-1 AAC) and Cincinnati (8-2, 5-1 AAC).
Heading into the matchup, one of the pressing questions involved who would operate as quarterback for the Knights. After Mikey Keene starred in the last six quarters, UCF reverted to dual-threat quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, two weeks removed from a head injury. Plumlee provided the UCF offense a spark with his legs, churning out 176 rushing yards in the victory. The quarterback immediately contributed to the scoring effort by blasting away for a 67-yard touchdown run within the first five minutes of kickoff. He reached the end zone one other time in his best rushing performance since 2019.
UCF’s running backs joined the ground-oriented party as well, and collectively, the Knights produced 336 rushing yards on a stout defense which entered Saturday surrendering just 127 per game. With 7:18 remaining in the first half, Plumlee and the crew already amassed 243 yards, utilizing a steady stream of motions and other eye candy to keep Tulane’s defense on its heels. RJ Harvey added 83 rushing yards on 12 attempts, and UCF’s beloved goal line wildcat tailback Isaiah Bowser punched in two touchdowns in a 54-yard outing.
The visiting Knights weren’t the only team witnessing success from their backfield in New Orleans. Tulane running backs Tyjae Spears broke away for a 70-yard run in the first quarter, which set the Green Wave up for their first touchdown. Spears finished with 130 rushing yards, but the star back was limited to eight carries mainly due to his team playing catch-up throughout the afternoon.
After a Duece Watts touchdown reception sliced UCF’s early 10-0 lead, the Knights responded with consecutive touchdowns to create a three-score lead. Among those touchdowns was an 8-yard strike from Plumlee to Javon Baker to rewrite the score to 24-7. Tulane inched within 10 points right before the halftime, utilizing multiple pass interference calls and a roughing the kicker to extend a 13-play possession. When the series ended, quarterback Michael Pratt found himself in the end zone after a QB sneak.
Pratt’s arm was heavily relied upon Saturday, as the third-year starting quarterback tossed 39 passes and complete 23 for 236 yards. He delivered a hat trick of touchdown strikes, including one in the final minute of the third quarter to slice UCF’s lead to seven points. Pratt delivered his last touchdown pass in the final two minutes to also cut the Knights’ lead to seven points, but Tulane was unable to recover the do-or-die onside kick needed to sustain its undefeated AAC record.
In between Pratt’s touchdown passes was a pivotal 16-play, 75-yard touchdown drive for the Knights which consumed over eight minutes of clock. This sequence was UCF’s potent rushing attack at its finest. Bowser converted several third-and-short opportunities to keep the drive churning and wound up reaping the benefits on a 1-yard touchdown run with 3:32 remaining.
Turnovers were costly in UCF’s two losses this year, but the Knights refrained from committing one in a ranked matchup on the road. While Tulane coughed the ball up two times, UCF was unable to tangibly capitalize on the Green Wave miscues. But the shorthanded Knight defense, operating without outside linebacker Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste and starting safeties Quadric Bullard and Divaad Wilson, managed to hold firm. Without these key contributors, the defense still won the battle in the trenches on both sides, applying an ample amount of pressure on Pratt throughout the game.
UCF’s victory moves the Knights into first place in the AAC standings. Gus Malzahn’s squad earns hosting duties of the conference championship should they win their remaining contests — a home finale against Navy and the final edition of the War on I-4 rivalry with South Florida in Tampa. UCF’s looming opponents combine for a 4-16 record, so the Knights hope to capitalize and compete for the league crown in Orlando for the first time since 2018.
Tulane’s unblemished AAC season comes to a close in front of its home fans. However, the Green Wave still control their own destiny for their first-ever AAC Championship Game appearance with a Thursday night home game against SMU and a trip to Cincinnati on the docket. The aggregate record of Tulane’s remaining opponents is 14-6, so Willie Fritz’s squad aims to rebound from this result with a difficult upcoming schedule.