ORLANDO — For UCF head coach Gus Malzahn, it’s time for the Knights to draw a line in the sand.
Halfway through the 2022 season, Malzahn believes few teams will improve from this point forward. He wants his squad to be one of those exceptions.
“Most (teams) will fall off a cliff or try to just hold it together,” Malzahn said before last week’s 70-13 beatdown of Temple. “We’ve got to be different.”
‘First Space Game was a success’:John Rhys Plumlee accounts for 7 touchdowns, UCF hangs 70 points on Temple
UCF sits at 5-1 and 2-0 within the American Athletic Conference. The Knights received 33 voting points in this week’s USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll, and they are similarly knocking on the door of the AP Top 25.
But, the second-half schedule is significantly more difficult — starting with the season’s first out-of-state road trip at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against East Carolina. The Pirates are riding an emotional high after emerging victorious in a four-overtime battle with Memphis last week.
Looking slightly further ahead, UCF also has a pair of games against nationally ranked opponents within the next month. Cincinnati visits for homecoming on Oct. 29, and the Knights head to Tulane on Nov. 12.
That’s what is still to come. For the moment, let’s take a look back and evaluate the opening six games for the Knights — grading different facets of the team, on a standard A-F scale.
Malzahn raised some eyebrows by naming John Rhys Plumlee the team’s starting quarterback near the end of fall camp. Plumlee, a senior, spent the previous two seasons lined up at wide receiver for Ole Miss but entered the transfer portal to seek another opportunity behind center.
In 2019, Plumlee topped 1,000 rushing yards and earned Freshman All-American honors from several major outlets. He switched positions when Lane Kiffin accepted the head coaching position at Ole Miss, and instead built his offense around Matt Corral.
Dating back to the spring, Plumlee has encountered doubts about his ability to consistently, accurately throw the ball downfield. His performances were uneven in the opening month, lighting up lesser opposition (South Carolina State and Florida Atlantic) while struggling badly at times against Power Five foes (Louisville and Georgia Tech).
However, he’s raised his game in back-to-back conference wins over SMU and Temple. For the year, Plumlee has completed 63.7% of his attempts for 1,516 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions — ranking 29th in the FBS in passing efficiency.
“He’s starting to get the feel for playing quarterback, and we thought that all along,” Malzahn said. “Earlier in the year, I’d say the reality is he hadn’t played quarterback in three years. You can see each game, things are starting to slow down for him. You can tell that with his progressions, and you can tell that with his demeanor.”
Alabama transfer Javon Baker quickly emerged as Plumlee’s preferred target, hauling in 25 receptions for a team-high 403 yards and two touchdowns. Ryan O’Keefe (28 catches, 364 yards, four TDs) shook off a minor hamstring injury against Louisville, and is burning defenses at full speed. Kobe Hudson (seven catches, 174 yards, two TDs) missed two games due to personal reasons, but Auburn’s leading receiver in 2021 has carved out a role the last two weeks.
UCF’s offensive line has allowed 11 sacks — four alone in its lone loss to Louisville — but mostly kept Plumlee upright since the start of league play. Three starters returned from last year’s line, though Samuel Jackson kicked inside to guard to accommodate the arrivals of transfers Tylan Grable (Jacksonville State) and Ryan Swoboda (Virginia) at tackle.
“We’ve got a very good unit, and we’ve gotten better every week,” Swoboda said Monday. “We take pride in being able to run the ball. We take pride when guys are able to make big plays. We have a lot of talented guys, so it’s fun. We’re really jelling as a unit.”
Thought to be its greatest strength in the preseason, UCF’s rushing attack ranks fourth in FBS in yards per game (261.2). Plumlee’s elusiveness outside the pocket and in open space has paired perfectly with a deep, diverse group of running backs.
Isaiah Bowser was the engine of the Knights’ run game last season, in particular his efforts against Boise State and Florida at the beginning and end of 2021. He’s thrived out of the Wildcat in short-yardage and goal-line situations this fall, scoring a team-high nine touchdowns albeit with a 3.5 yard-per-carry average.
Plumlee leads the squad with 468 rushing yards, adding seven touchdowns on the ground — with three coming against Temple last Thursday.
Johnny Richardson’s usage has varied at times this season. When he’s had the ball in his hands, he’s as electric as ever. The Lake Wales native averages 7.5 yards per carry this fall — and 7.1 for his three-year career.
They were the expected leading trio of runners for the Knights this season, but RJ Harvey’s role has continually expanded each week. He broke off the Knights’ longest run of the year — 61 yards — against Temple, getting first-quarter backfield work for the first time this season.
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Harvey, a former quarterback recruit who missed all of last season with a torn left ACL, has rushed for 265 yards (8.5 per carry) and one touchdown. He has added juice in between the tackles and offers a nice blend of speed, power and pass-catching ability.
“Just to watch him, it almost brings tears to my eyes,” defensive end Josh Celiscar said of Harvey after the Temple game. “I’m proud of him. Seeing him going through his injury and tough times, he’s my rackmate (in the weight room), so to see him be successful, I was happy for him.”
Red zone offense
This has been a sore spot for Malzahn, in particular, at times this season.
Despite the fact UCF is fifth in the country in total offense (525.2 yards per game) and 13th in scoring (41.3 points per game), it barely cracks the top 100 in red zone efficiency.
Of the Knights’ 32 drives inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, they have come away emptyhanded seven times for a scoring conversion rate of 78.1%.
On a positive note, 21 of UCF’s 25 scores have gone for touchdowns. The Knights produced points on all six of their red zone drives versus Temple, which entered last week as a top-20 national defense in the scoring department.
The overall numbers for UCF’s rushing defense are fairly good.
The Knights rank 41st in the country in yards allowed per game (124.2), with opposing rushers averaging a pedestrian 3.8 per carry. Additionally, they are 35th nationally in tackles for loss per game (6.5).
Edge rusher Tre’mon Morris-Brash (6½ TFLs) and linebacker Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste (4½) are consistently disruptive. And it’s worth remembering the linebacking corps aside from co-captain Jean-Baptiste entered the year as one of the squad’s biggest question marks.
Jason Johnson, who transferred from FCS Eastern Illinois, is a steadying veteran presence and the preferred partner to the aggressive Jean-Baptiste. He’s tied for the team lead with 29 solo tackles, and has a team-high total of 50. Walter Yates, who suited up for D-II Savannah State last year, has flashed when called upon as well.
Up front, Josh Celiscar consistently sets the edge, recording 15 solo tackles to date. Anthony Montalvo and Ricky Barber occupy blockers in the interior, and redshirt freshman Lee Hunter — a former four-star recruit brought to Auburn by Malzahn’s staff — looks like a real pillar for the future.
However, opponents have moved the ball on the ground with relative ease in the first halves of a few games. Florida Atlantic gashed the Knights for 192 yards before halftime last month, and Velton Gardner sprung loose for a 39-yard touchdown for SMU two weeks ago.
On the back end, UCF’s rangy, physical corners showcased their skills against SMU’s high-octane pass attack. The Knights snapped Tanner Mordecai’s 17-game streak with at least one touchdown throw.
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UCF returned all five starters in the secondary from its Gasparilla Bowl triumph over Florida, and supplemented that experience with an influx of talent via the transfer portal (safety Koby Perry from Eastern Illinois) and the high school ranks (true freshmen Nikai Martinez and Demari Henderson).
The Knights have secured only two interceptions — both by Divaad Wilson, and one on a Hail Mary just before halftime against SMU — but broken up a further 29 passes. Overall, UCF ranks ninth in the nation in pass defense efficiency, allowing only four touchdown passes across six games.
That’s a fairly impressive feat considering the Knights faced veteran signal-callers Malik Cunningham, N’Kosi Perry Jeff Sims and Tanner Mordecai in consecutive contests. East Carolina’s Holton Ahlers will get a fifth crack at the Knights this coming Saturday.
Takeaways could make the difference down the stretch, and so too could be boosting the sack totals. UCF has 11 on the year, though Morris-Brash (three) is the only player on the roster with more than one.
Red zone defense
Defensive coordinator Travis Williams has pressed all the right buttons down near the goal line, and his players carry a swagger with their backs against the wall.
“Our whole defense, when we get down near the goal line, we’ve got the same mindset — they’re not scoring, and we’re getting the stop,” Morris-Brash said after the team’s win against Florida Atlantic.
UCF leads the nation in red zone defense, allowing a score on just 52.4% of opponents’ 21 drives inside the 20. Texas A&M is second, for context’s sake, with a 61.1% rate.
What’s more — only five of the 10 scores allowed are touchdowns. UCF held South Carolina State to a field goal on a drive that started at its own 2-yard line, and blocked a Florida Atlantic kick on a possession that began at its own 1.
In fairness, none of UCF’s five FBS opponents rank among the top 50 for red zone offense. But six games is enough of a sample size to consider this more than an anomaly.
UCF’s red zone defense is flat-out dominant.
Arguably the biggest improvement across the entire season has occurred in the kicking game.
Malzahn made wholesale changes in time for the trip to Boca Raton, replacing placekicker Daniel Obarski with true freshman Colton Boomer and preferring Australian newcomer Mitch McCarthy to Andrew Osteen for longer punts.
Boomer is an unsung hero in UCF’s 5-1 start. The Lake Mary native is a perfect 7-of-7 on field goal attempts this season, with a long of 43 yards.
“I might look a little wild on the field, but it’s pretty meticulous,” Boomer said of his approach after a 4-for-4 day against Georgia Tech. “A magician never reveals his tricks. But I’ve definitely got a little system going.”
Obarski, meanwhile, went 0 for 2 this year with misses in each of the Knights’ first two games. He’s 20 for 33 in his career, never making a kick longer than 40 yards.
McCarthy averages 42.4 yards per punt, and none of his 10 kicks have gone into the end zone for a touchback. Osteen remains entrusted for pinning teams deep, as he did twice inside the 10-yard line against SMU.
It’s been a block party on special teams as well this fall. Quadric Bullard returned both of UCF’s blocked punts for touchdowns, and the Knights have gotten their hands on three field goals.
O’Keefe (24.3 yards per kickoff) and freshman Xavier Townsend (10.0 per punt) are among the top returners in the country, each a threat to go the distance at any moment.