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No. 20 UCF keeping focus squarely on Navy

Sportsnaut
Nov 12, 2022; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; UCF Knights running back Johnny Richardson (0) runs the ball against the Tulane Green Wave during the fourth quarter at Yulman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rebecca Warren-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Rebecca Warren-USA TODAY Sports

By picking up its biggest win of the season, UCF took over the driver’s seat for the Group of Five conferences’ New Year’s Six berth.

After the Knights moved up two spots to No. 20 in Tuesday night’s rankings, they won’t get caught looking any further ahead than their next game against Navy on Saturday morning in Orlando, Fla.

The highest-ranked champion from the non-Power Five conferences will earn a berth to a New Year’s Six bowl. Last week, the team in line for that honor was then-No. 17 Tulane, but UCF went into New Orleans and pulled out a 38-31 victory.

Now UCF (8-2, 5-1 AAC) is tied with Cincinnati and Tulane atop the American Athletic Conference and owns the head-to-head tiebreakers over both. The Knights will host the conference championship game so long as they win out.

“That’s what I told our guys the other day: We’re not talking about anything (else),” UCF coach Gus Malzahn said. “We’ve got our hands full with this group (Navy). Last home game is really important for our seniors, really important for our program. It happens to be a really, really important game in the conference, so run with it.”

After missing the previous game due to injury, starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee returned against Tulane and ran for 176 yards and two touchdowns on 18 attempts, in addition to throwing for 132 yards and another score. He broke off a 67-yard rushing score in the first quarter.

“There’s not a lot of quarterbacks around the country that are running like him as a run threat,” Malzahn said. “He’s really opened up things, and opened up some things on the perimeter later in the game. He played at a really high level.”

Navy (3-7, 3-4) knows a thing or two about running quarterbacks through its well-established triple-option offense. Malzahn pointed out that the Midshipmen are ranked not only 10th in FBS in rushing offense (238.7 yards per game) but also sixth in the country in defending the run (85.8 yards per game).

“You look at them this year, very similar,” Malzahn said. “Offensively they do a few more things. They’ve kind of opened up their offense a little bit as far as that goes.”

The main way the Midshipmen have opened it up has been by passing more often than normal. They’ve thrown for eight touchdowns, already higher than their total of six in each of the past two seasons. They’re on pace to attempt more passes than any season since at least 2016.

One week after Clemson was manhandled by Notre Dame and shut out for three quarters, Navy quarterbacks Xavier Arline and Maasai Maynor each threw for a touchdown before Notre Dame ultimately hung on 35-32. Notre Dame led 35-13 at halftime but Navy generated a stirring comeback that fell one score short.

UCF has a 2-1 edge in the all-time series, but in last year’s meeting, the Midshipmen rallied from a 30-17 fourth-quarter deficit to win 34-30 at home.

“We know (they have) a lot of good players, we know how fast they are,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We saw them in person last year, but again they’ve got some new players too. They’re playing really well now, that’s the tough part. They’re playing really well right now.

“So it’s gonna be a great challenge for us. We’re watching last year’s tapes … hopefully it’ll give us some tangible evidence that it can be done.”

–Field Level Media