UCF coaches and players have tried to remain optimistic throughout their losing streak. But following another brutal defeat — 41-28 to West Virginia on Saturday — the mood shifted to disappointment and frustration.
“I thought we would play better,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “We were set up to play better and we didn’t today.”
UCF (3-5, 0-5 Big 12) appeared to have everything going in its favor heading into the matchup with the visiting Mountaineers (5-2, 3-2). The Knights were favored (6.5 points) in the game despite the losing streak based on their strong performance a week earlier in a 2-point loss to No. 6 Oklahoma.
But everything the team did well against the Sooners seemed to vanish when they took the field at FBC Mortgage Stadium.
The Knights had no answer for WVU’s ground game as the Mountaineers ran for 286 yards while averaging nearly 6 yards per carry. Tailback CJ Donaldson (121 yards) became the sixth player to rush for at least 100 yards against UCF, which allowed at least 5 rushing touchdowns for the third time this season. Quarterback Garrett Greene had rushing touchdowns of 6, 7 and 1 yards.
“They’re good at running the football with their quarterback, but we couldn’t get them off the field,” Malzahn said. “It was a combination of being unable to stop the run and turning the ball over four times.”
When asked what worked better against OU that didn’t work against West Virginia, UCF linebacker Jason Johnson had no answers.
“I don’t know,” Johnson said before trailing off.
Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee was responsible for all four turnovers, with three interceptions and a fumble in the second half. The fifth-year senior started by completing his first five passes, including a 34-yard toss to receiver Kobe Hudson that tied the score at 7 in the first quarter.
But his sixth attempt would bounce off receiver Javon Baker’s hands and into the arms of cornerback Beanie Bishop Jr., ending a scoring threat in the red zone. Two throws later, another of Plumlee’s passes would be picked off on a deep throw. His third pick would once again come at the hands of Bishop, who stopped another threat by the Knights in the third quarter.
The final turnover came late in the third when Plumlee fumbled it after being sacked by linebacker Lee Kpogba.
West Virginia converted three of the four miscues into 21 points.
Plumlee finished 25 of 36 for 274 passing yards with 3 touchdowns, two going to Hudson. He also rushed for 45 yards, highlighted by an 8-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter.
Running back RJ Harvey finished with 100 rushing yards for the third straight game, becoming the first Knight to do so since Latavius Murray in 2012.
The 13-point loss was the largest home loss by the Knights since losing to Tulsa, 35-20 on Nov. 16, 2016. West Virginia was picked to finish last in the Big 12 in the preseason media poll. Instead, the Mountaineers find themselves in the thick of the conference race, with UCF last.
Players reiterated the importance of staying unified during the tough times.
“We’ve got to stay together and continue to work each day to get better, so you can’t give up on the season,” said Johnson.
Added fifth-year senior offensive lineman Lokahi Pauole: ” As leaders, we just got to step up. It’s hard and people are going to fall apart and that’s not what we are here at UCF. We were a team, we’re a family, and we’re more than just football. So we’re just going to stick together, keep grinding together.”
UCF is back on the road next Saturday to take on Cincinnati, a former American Athletic Conference foe also in its first Big 12 season (3:30 p.m., FS1).
The Knights (2013-14, ’17-18) and Bearcats (’14, ’20-21) combined to capture at least a share of seven AAC titles over the past decade.