ORLANDO — Motivated to return the favor after taking a 55-28 beating last November, UCF looked every bit the part an Americspann Athletic Conference chspanmpionship contender after halftime Wednesday night to pull away from SMU.
UCF scored 31 unanswered points, turning a turgid and tight first-half affair into a 41-19 blowout at FBC Mortgage Stadium. The Knights won their third consecutive contest, improving to 4-1 overall and 1-0 in the league it will leave officially next July in order to join the Big 12.
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“Last year, they beat the snot out of us,” Knights head coach Gus Malzahn said. “We were pretty beat up and hanging by a thread. And their quarterback is outstanding, one of the best in the country, I believe.
“We’re a different team at home. We’re still growing and improving. I tell our guys at the midway point, you draw a line in the sand. Very few teams actually get better from that point. … We’ve got to be that team. This game, we got better.”
SMU (2-3, 0-1), meanwhile, dropped its third straight contest — held scoreless in the second half until a 1-yard TD run by backup quarterback Preston Stone on the evening’s final play. The Mustangs converted 4 of 16 attempts on third down, and had a 1-for-4 touchdown rate against UCF’s top-ranked red zone defense.
With the win, UCF is now 9-2 all-time against SMU — including a perfect 6-0 record in Orlando. Malzahn also notched a victory against his pupil, first-year SMU coach Rhett Lashlee, his former assistant at Auburn and Arkansas State and high school quarterback at Shiloh Christian in Arkansas.
Here are three takeaways from an encouraging conference opener on home soil.
1. Quarter of the year
UCF simply found another gear out of the locker room, following another fairly drab first half.
The Knights stormed 79 yards in five plays and less than 2 minutes to take a 17-13 lead with the second of Isaiah Bowser’s three short-yardage touchdown rumbles. UCF extended its advantage near the end of the period with a perfectly thrown 26-yard touchdown pass from John Rhys Plumlee to Ryan O’Keefe.
“I think that’s the standard of this offense,” said Plumlee, who topped 300 passing yards for the third time in five games, rebounding from a 49-yard performance 10 days ago against Georgia Tech.
UCF’s defense delivered twice on fourth down, as well. Koby Perry tripped up SMU tight end Nolan Matthews-Harris in the open field when the Mustangs gambled at their own 34-yard line, and Brandon Adams knocked down Tanner Mordecai’s heave to the end zone for leading receiver Rashee Rice.
In total, UCF outscored SMU 14-0 in the third quarter and gained 204 yards — compared to just 145 in the opening half.
2. Baker and O’Keefe: ‘YAC monsters’
UCF’s passing game sprung into life in the late stages of the second half as Javon Baker and O’Keefe could not be contained on quick hitters.
Baker set up Bowser’s TD run in the third by juking and accelerating past defenders for a 51-yard gain on a slant. The junior, a summer transfer portal addition from Alabama, set a career-high by catching six of 10 targets for 138 yards — 76 coming after the catch.
“If you pay attention on the sidelines, we call ourselves YAC monsters,” said Baker, referring to the “Yards After Catch” stats. “(Opponents) ain’t going to play man no more. It’s disrespecting us to play man.”
O’Keefe put the contest out of reach at the 11:41 mark of the fourth, taking a speed sweep pitch from Plumlee 58 yards around the left end. The senior finished with 117 yards on six catches, marking the first time UCF had a pair of 100-yard receivers in the same game since Nov. 13, 2020.
Fully healed from a hamstring injury suffered in the first half against Louisville, O’Keefe made his first trips to the end zone since earning MVP honors of the Gasparilla Bowl last December.
“Those look good on the stats, that’s for sure,” Plumlee said. “Those guys are pretty special with the ball in their hands, and fun to watch.”
3. Adapting to Ian’s changes
The American Athletic Conference moved the SMU-UCF contest twice last week from its originally scheduled 3:30 p.m. Saturday start time.
On Sept. 27, the league announced plans for a 1 p.m. Sunday kickoff. Those were then scrapped after Hurricane Ian delivered record amounts of rainfall and flooding across Central Florida.
The AAC made a second, permanent switch Friday, moving the game to 7 p.m. Wednesday. The fact both teams were due for an Oct. 8 bye certainly helped matters.
UCF practiced Wednesday morning before the storm, and resumed its normal schedule Friday evening, two spokesmen for the university said.
“The mental and emotional toll of the hurricane, that was real,” Malzahn said. “I really appreciate (athletic director) Terry (Mohajir), our administration and our president being sensitive to that in pushing the game back. It was really in the best interest of everyone.
“We tried to practice before it hit, and it was a challenge. You’re worried about your families, other families, your players. That was my first experience. … Even when you get back, it felt weird for a day or two.”
UCF will have its fourth midweek home game of the fall at 7 p.m. next Thursday when Temple enters the Bounce House.
Temple dropped to 2-3 overall, and 0-1 in the AAC, with a 24-3 loss Saturday to Memphis.