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No. 17 Tulane, No. 22 UCF battle for leg up in AAC race

Sportsnaut
Nov 5, 2022; Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA;  Tulane Green Wave running back Tyjae Spears runs the ball during the first quarter against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane at Skelly Field at H.A. Chapman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

No. 17 Tulane will look to move a step closer to an American Athletic Conference title and a New Year’s Day bowl game as the highest-ranked Group of 5 team when it hosts No. 22 UCF on Saturday in New Orleans.

The Green Wave (8-1, 5-0 AAC), who have won five straight games, are off to their best start since going 12-0 in 1998 and have won more than seven games for the first time since 2002. Tulane’s No. 16 ranking is its highest since finishing No. 7 in 1998, which was the last season the Green Wave were ranked before they entered the poll last month.

“We want to be a nationally known program — that’s been our goal since we’ve been here,” said Tulane coach Willie Fritz, who is in his seventh season at the school. “I think our program sells itself.”

However, AAC-leading Tulane is going to have to defeat second-place UCF (7-2, 4-1) if it’s to continue its storybook season. The Knights are also in the mix to earn the guaranteed New Year’s Day bowl game as the highest-ranked Group of 5 team.

The Knights are coming off a 35-28 win at Memphis, their sixth victory in the past seven games. Quarterback Mikey Keene filled in for John Rhys Plumlee, who sustained a concussion a week earlier, and threw for 219 yards and three touchdowns.

RJ Harvey rushed for 151 yards and a score for UCF, and Kobe Hudson added six receptions for 85 yards and two touchdowns.

Plumlee was cleared to play against Memphis, but coach Gus Malzahn went with Keene because Plumlee hadn’t practiced. Malzahn will wait closer to game time before naming a starter for Saturday.

“It was a close, hard-fought battle when we named John Rhys the (starting) quarterback,” Malzahn said. “(Mikey) had been waiting his turn. He’s been preparing like he’s going to play every week.

“We’ve got two real guys, and that’s a great luxury.”

Plumlee has completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 1,883 yards with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions, in addition to rushing for a team-high tying 532 yards and seven scores.

Harvey has rushed for 532 yards and four touchdowns, while Isaiah Bowser has 503 yards and 11 scores on 129 carries. Ryan O’Keefe has 49 receptions for 536 yards and four scores, while Javon Baker has 36 catches for 504 yards and three touchdowns.

Tulane is coming off a 27-13 win at Tulsa in which it outgained the Golden Hurricane 482-257 in total yards.

Tulane’s Michael Pratt has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 1,843 yards with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions, while Tyjae Spears powers the ground game with 745 yards and 10 touchdowns on 134 carries.

The Green Wave have seven players with between 17 and 23 receptions apiece. Shae Wyatt has a team-high 383 yards on 20 receptions with two touchdowns, while Dea Dea McDougle has a team-high 23 receptions for 236 yards. Duece Watts and Tyrick James each have a team-high five receiving touchdowns.

–Field Level Media