UCF pulled out all the stops to win one last American Athletic Conference on the way out the door.
Yet, the Knights just couldn't make any.
Certainly not against AAC Offensive Player of the Year Tyjae Spears, senior quarterback Michael Pratt and a revenge-thirsty Tulane team.
Tulane gained an eye-popping 649 yards of total offense, pulling away from UCF for a 45-28 victory in front of a record crowd of 30,118 at Yulman Stadium in New Orleans.
The 18th-ranked Green Wave (11-2) secured a spot in the Cotton Bowl Classic as the Group of Five's automatic New Year's Six representative. UCF (9-4), four-time champs of the AAC in its 10-year tenure, will learn its bowl destination Sunday afternoon.
"It hurts, for sure," fifth-year running back Isaiah Bowser said. "A lot of work was put in to get to this point. We got the momentum coming back, but weren't able to get it done."
Knights senior quarterback John Rhys Plumlee gutted out a hamstring injury, re-entering in the second half after another early departure. Thomas Castellanos burned his freshman-year redshirt, hoping to spark something in the running game.
Head coach Gus Malzahn dialed up in his signature share of trick plays, two resulting in touchdowns — a reverse to freshman receiver Xavier Townsend, and a 49-yard pass from running back RJ Harvey, a former QB recruit at Virginia.
But UCF couldn't find a way to slow Tulane. Spears rushed for 199 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Pratt carved up the Knights' secondary for 394 yards and four scores, with both Duece Watts and Shae Wyatt surpassing the century mark for receiving yardage.
Here are three takeaways from a historic day for Tulane and a disappointing swan song for the Knights.
1. Castellanos burns redshirt, Keene inactive
Contradictory to what was said in UCF's post-game press conference a week ago, Mikey Keene did not dress for Saturday's game, protecting his eligibility for an impending transfer as early as Monday.
Keene, a sophomore, completed 72.3% of his passes for 647 yards, six touchdowns and one interception in four appearances this fall — one start against Memphis, and three spots in relief (Cincinnati, Navy and South Florida). The Knights were 3-1 in games Keene played.
After the Knights' comeback victory over South Florida last week, Keene replied, 'Yeah, let's go win a championship,' when asked if he would burn a year of eligibility to compete in the AAC title game. Under NCAA rules, athletes can participate in four games without sacrificing a year of eligibility.
Instead, after Plumlee reaggravated his hamstring on a stuffed 4th-and-1 rush, Malzahn turned to his true freshman. Castellanos saw mostly mop-up duty in the first half of the season, but he took over signal-calling duties on the Knights' fourth drive.
"His hamstring was bad all week," Malzahn said. "That 4th-and-1, he just couldn't get around the corner.
"Tommy did some really good things. He's going to be a phenomenal quarterback. It was just that he was put in a tough spot."
Castellanos was under constant duress, completing only two passes for 7 yards and finishing with minus-8 rushing yards on seven attempts.
Plumlee made a somewhat surprising return in the third quarter and made some significant throws after the Green Wave built a three-score lead. He fired a 17-yard strike to Kobe Hudson late in the third, and a 15-yard completion to Javon Baker on third down which led to Isaiah Bowser's fourth-quarter TD run to make the score 31-28.
"At this point of the year, everyone's got something — cuts, bruises, bumps," said Plumlee, who went 21 of 39 for 209 yards. "You rehab it, you try to get better, you try to get close to 100%. At practice, I did what I could do. I ultimately tried everything to be able to play in the game. That was the goal."
That was as close as UCF could get.
2. Tulane gashes UCF's defense
Despite forcing three turnovers, UCF's defense turned in another woeful performance.
Defenders took poor angles, missed tackles, slipped in the open field and gave up enormous chunk-yardage plays.
Tulane ran 18 plays on its first two drives, breezing to a 10-0 lead. Lawrence Keys III tacked on another touchdown in the second quarter on a simple throw into the flat, racing 43 yards past a pair of out-of-position defensive backs.
Out of halftime, Spears squeezed through three Knights tacklers, sprinted to daylight and changed directions in the open field to score an impressive 60-yard touchdown out of halftime, increasing Tulane's lead to 24-7.
With its offense finally clicking and within a field goal early in the fourth quarter, the Knights again capitulated. Defensive back Corey Thornton lost his footing, allowing Wyatt to jet away on a curl route for a 60-yard backbreaker.
In total, Tulane averaged 10.1 yards per play, picked up 20 first downs and scored on three of four trips inside the red zone.
"They played really, really good in the biggest game," Malzahn said. "Those big plays were a huge part of the game."
3. Where to next?
UCF will make bowl arrangements in the next 24 hours. Projections vary greatly as to where the Knights will compete later this month.
The AAC will have representation in the Fenway Bowl (Boston), Military Bowl (Annapolis, Md.), Armed Forces Bowl (Fort Worth, Texas) and Independence Bowl (Shreveport, La.). Additionally, the league is affiliated with the New Mexico Bowl (Albuquerque, N.M.), Boca Raton Bowl (Boca Raton), First Responder Bowl (Dallas), Cure Bowl (Orlando), Birmingham Bowl (Birmingham, Ala.), Frisco Bowl (Frisco, Texas) and Gasparilla Bowl (Tampa).
Action Network and 247Sports forecast the Knights traveling to the Military Bowl to face Wake Forest. The Athletic also predicts UCF making one last trip to Annapolis, but in a battle with Duke.
"We need to win a bowl game and get some momentum for next year," Malzahn said. "You look at last year, we won a big bowl game (Gasparilla Bowl against Florida). This year, we made it to the conference championship. We're going the right direction as a program.
"We're disappointed right now, but the future is really bright."
Since making the leap to the FBS in 1996, UCF has earned 13 bowl invitations. However, the Knights have not left the Sunshine State for a non-New Year's Six game since 2010.
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: UCF Knights football: Takeaways from AAC championship game with Tulane