ORLANDO, Fla. – UCF (5-4, 3-2) rode three defensive touchdowns to a 37-6 victory over the Tulane Green Wave (3-6, 0-5) in a rescheduled conference matchup Saturday, in front of announced crowd of over 30,000 Knights fans at Brighthouse Networks Stadium.
The Knights offense vastly underperformed – putting up only 297 yards of total offense and 16 of the points – digging themselves into an early hole with turnovers on their first two possessions. Tulane only managed six points from the opportunities, which is a huge credit to the Knights’ lights-out defense.
“That’s not how we want to start a football game, particularly when you are playing a team that has a different type of offense than you are used to feeling,” said Head Coach Scott Frost. “It takes a little bit, maybe a series or two, for guys to get the feel for what the speed of how they do it is like.”
It took about an entire half for the UCF defense to truly “get a feel for it” this time around. During the half the players were reminded to have fun, sure, but were also keyed in on a few crucial adjustments.
Up by only a point after two quarters, defensive back Drico Johnson was assigned to cover the option, to bust outside instead of inside on those reads. He did it with aplomb in the second half, first ripping a screen pass out of the air for a touchdown (it was ruled a fumble as the trajectory was a backwards pass) and then later jumping a short route for an 86-yard interception return.
Not only is that the first time a UCF defender has returned both a fumble and an interception for a score in the same game – it is the only time two defensive touchdowns have been scored by one player in a single game.
Sandwiched between Johnson’s two game-breaking scores was a return from a familiar name, as Shaquill Griffin notched one of his two interceptions and returned it for a score of his own.
“I’m starting to think there is a chain reaction,” Griffin said about feeding off the defense’s energy.
The quick scores had an alternate effect as well, keeping the Knights’ defense on the field for an extended period of time, especially with a struggling offense. Tulane’s run-heavy attack kept the ball in possession of the Green Wave for almost two-thirds of the entire game; 39:50 of 60:00 minutes.
Tulane managed to rack up a whopping 280 yards on the ground, further cementing their reputation as an aggressive ground attack behind a three-man option, but only scored six points. Their initial score was at the 12:23 mark in the first quarter; UCF’s defense completely stymied them after the short-field score.
“We didn’t wear down tonight. The game was slowed down and our defense took the majority of the reps. I don’t know how many snaps on offense we had in the second half, but it had to be less than20 I would think. When the defense scores, they have to go right ack out there and that’s a good thing for everybody,” Frost commented on the amount of playing time.
It was mentioned that players had begun to press a little bit in the past few weeks, that the 2015 attitude of “here we go again” was starting to creep its way back into the locker room. Frost addressed the sneaking confidence killer during the game, sparking the runaway from what was a one-point game.
“The message was a little different tonight,” he said. “The message was for our guys to have fun and enjoy playing football. I kind of got the feeling at a couple of our other games that there was almost a feeling of dread in guys.”
Offensive lineman Wyatt Miller echoed those sentiments, saying that on offense especially, the pressure was beginning to take a slight mental toll. Winning at home always helps.
“We were just focusing on executing, playing loose. Sometimes you get so tense that you forget why you’re playing,” Miller said.
UCF’s offense struggled mightily on paper, only passing for 150 yards (65 on the final drive) and failing to put a long play together before garbage time snuck around. Justin Holman mopped up the game at quarterback, completing 3-of-3 passes for 65 yards and a rushing touchdown, while McKenzie Milton completed 9-of-20 for 85 yards and no touchdowns with an interception.
In an interesting display beyond football, both teams sported a “P6” decal on the back of their helmets, marking a serious push for the American Athletic Conference’s idea of a power-six hierarchy. The marketing position took full form after the Big 12’s decision not to expand their ranks.
Now at 3-2 in conference play, the Knights will move on to play Cincinnati next week at home, a team 1-4 in the AAC.
Photo Credit: Bryce Brimhall; Brimhall Media Service