As quickly as UCF gained control of first place in the American Athletic Conference, it ceded it right back to the chasing pack.
Navy (4-7, 4-4 AAC) rushed for 248 yards, and got a four-sack performance from John Marshall to snap a four-game losing streak with a 17-14 victory Saturday at FBC Mortgage Stadium.
UCF (8-3, 5-2) lost not only the game, and assuredly its spot in the College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings, but also virtually any chance to host the league’s championship game. Should Cincinnati defeat Temple later Saturday afternoon, either the Bearcats or Tulane will gain home-field advantage.
“It’s frustrating but at the end of the day … wherever we end up, put the ball down and play,” said UCF redshirt junior defensive tackle Ricky Barber, who tied for the team lead with 13 total tackles.
Tulane, which pounded SMU on Thursday night, heads to Cincinnati next weekend. UCF, meanwhile, heads to hapless South Florida for the final rendition of the War on I-4 for the foreseeable future.
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Daba Fofana gained 114 yards for the victorious Midshipmen, who converted on all four of their fourth down tries and grinded away with their triple-option attack.
Here are three takeaways from a stunning upset in the Bounce House.
1. Mikey Keene replaces John Rhys Plumlee
UCF head coach Gus Malzahn repeated two things publicly in regards to the Knights’ quarterback situation: He believed both John Rhys Plumlee and Mikey Keene could do the job, and he was willing to do whatever necessary to win.
Plumlee, coming off an AAC Offensive Player of the Week performance at Tulane, started as expected Saturday but was replaced at halftime by Keene after completing just 11 of 18 passes for 107 yards, throwing an interception and gaining just 9 yards on two rushing attempts.
Navy led, at the time, 14-6.
“The way it was going it, we were going to have to throw it to get back in the game,” said Malzahn, who added Plumlee dealt with a sore throwing shoulder. “They were pressuring us off the edge, daring us to throw it.”
The immediate results were promising. Keene completed his first three passes, including a 45-yard bomb to Ryan O’Keefe and a 28-yard scoring strike to Javon Baker. UCF converted a two-point conversion, a Plumlee reverse pass to Baker, to tie the game 95 seconds into the third quarter.
But, Navy brought relentless pressure on the sophomore. Keene went 5 of 12 for the remainder of the half, was nearly picked off on several occasions and lost a crucial fumble when Marshall blindsided him early in the third. That set up Bijan Nichols’ decisive 45-yard field goal.
“The negative plays, that’s what stands out to me,” Malzahn said. “You’ve got to stay ahead of the chains against a group like that.”
More significantly, UCF strayed away from its winning formula against Navy’s No. 6 national run defense. The Knights ran the ball 24 times for 84 yards — 165.5 less than their season average, the fifth-best mark in major college football.
2. Navy gets off to a rare good start
Malzahn stressed the importance of dictating the tempo earlier in the week, yet Navy was able to do so from the coin toss. The Midshipmen won it, wanted the ball and methodically went to work.
Fofana and Xavier Arline each converted on third-and-short situations to extend the drive in the opening four minutes, then Fofana ripped off a 46-yard rumble inside the Knights’ 10. Four plays later, with the ball resting an inch or two shy of the goal line, Arline bulldozed his way across it.
It was Navy’s first opening-drive touchdown of the season.
UCF could not provide a satisfactory response in the first half. Malzahn elected to punt on 4th-and-1 from his team’s 35, halting any sort of momentum on the opening possession. And UCF sputtered twice down near the goal line, settling for a pair of short Colton Boomer field goals to pull within 7-6.
Navy countered just before halftime with a soul-crushing 13-play, 84-yard slog, punctuated by Vincent Terrell Jr.’s 8-yard sweep into the end zone. Before halftime, the Midshipmen outrushed UCF 166-47, and controlled the ball for 19 minutes, 14 seconds.
3. The bigger picture
Hosting the AAC championship game is likely out of the equation for the Knights; competing in it, however, is not.
UCF is assured of its place with a victory over South Florida next Saturday night, plus a Houston loss in either of its final two contests. The Knights hold head-to-head tiebreakers on both Cincinnati and Tulane, so the loser of next week’s game would be left out in the cold.
“We’ve got to win. The talk amongst all the seniors is winning the conference championship. In 2017, coming in, we won the conference championship, and we want to end the same way,” said defensive lineman Anthony Montalvo, one of 24 Knights honored during pre-game Senior Day festivities.
Navy’s shock win also complicates the race for the Group of Five’s automatic New Years’ Six bowl bid. With UCF assured to fall out of the top 25, could a team from outside the AAC sneak in if the Knights go on to win the league?
Potential Sun Belt champion Coastal Carolina, whose game at Virginia was canceled, stands to potentially be the benefactor with a 9-1 overall record.