Pratt accounts for 5 TDs, Tulane tops UCF 45-28 to win AAC

Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW ORLEANS – As Tulane receiver Shae Wyatt watched jubilant fans streaming onto the field, he couldn’t help but reflect upon how far his team had come since finishing last season 2-10.

“It’s definitely surreal,” said Wyatt, whose two touchdown catches were no small part of why a celebratory scene so hard to conceive of a year ago was unfolding around him. “Seeing all the other schools with their success, and having their fans storm the field – eventually, everybody wants that.”

Michael Pratt accounted for 442 total yards and five touchdowns, Tyjae Spears highlighted his 199 yards rushing with a 60-yard score and No. 18 Tulane beat No. 22 UCF 45-28 on Saturday night in the American Athletic Conference championship game.

The victory virtually assured Tulane (11-2) would play in the Cotton Bowl – its first major New Year’s Day bowl since the 1939 season.

A full hour after the game, Tulane players were still in uniform, walking back to the field from the locker room to pose for photos with teammates, some with cigars in hand. Spears joked that his elbow was sore from fans pulling on him for a congratulatory embrace.

“It was an amazing feeling, man,” Spears said. “That’s something that will stick with us for the rest of our life.”

And Wyatt suggested that Tulane’s remarkable turnaround should serve as a lesson.

“They were just throwing dirt over us and for a while it was hard to bounce back,” Wyatt said of last season, during which Tulane was displaced by Hurricane Ida to a Birmingham hotel for a month, and plagued with injuries to prominent players.

“If you keep your faith and you believe in your brothers that are next to you, flowers will grow. I promise you,” Wyatt said. “I hope this is a testament to anybody out there.”

Pratt passed for a career-high 394 yards, including touchdowns of 73 yards to Duece Watts, 60 and 10 yards to Wyatt and 43 yards to Lawrence Keys. Pratt also ran for a pivotal 18-yard touchdown with 4:04 left.

“It was awesome to close out that game and have those fans so fired up,” said Pratt, named the game’s most outstanding player.

Spears electrified the record crowd of 30,118 at Tulane’s cozy, on-campus Yulman Stadium with his long scoring run, on which he broke two tackles near the line of scrimmage, made two other defenders miss and hurndled his own fallen teammate after cutting back inside.

The Green Wave, which earned the right to host the title game by ending Cincinnati’s 32-game home winning streak last weekend, avenged a 38-31 regular-season loss to UCF (9-4) on the same field on Nov. 12.

But UCF was not quite the same team because of QB John Rhys Plumlee‘s nagging hamstring injury, which appeared to rob him of the explosiveness he displayed by running for 176 yards in the previous meeting.

Plumlee struggled enough early on that coach Gus Malzahn pulled him in the second quarter in favor of Thomas Castellanos. But with Tulane up 24-7 in the middle of the third quarter, Malzahn put Plumlee back in as primarily a passer – and he nearly led the Kights all the way back.

“He’s one of the toughest players I think I’ve ever coached,” Malzahn said. “John Rhys just kept telling me, `Coach, give me another chance.’ … He really gave us a spark.”

Plumlee led UCF quickly for a touchdown to make it 24-14, converting a fourth-and-10 pass along the way and capping the drive with a 17-yarder to Kobe Hudson.

“You work all year to play in a game like this,” said Plumlee, who completed 29 of 39 for 209 yards and one TD, but finished with minus-7 yards rushing as Tulane had six sacks. “I didn’t want to sell myself short or sell this team short.”

Tulane responded when both UCF safeties froze on a play-fake to Spears and Pratt found Watts running free behind the defense.

UCF cut it to 31-21 when former Virginia QB RJ Harvey took a backward pass from Plumlee and launched a 49-yard TD pass to Hudson.

And the Knights got the ball right back when Spears fumbled after a catch on the Green Wave 30. Isaiah Bowser‘s 10-yard run shortly after got UCF as close as 31-28 with 9:48 still left.

But Pratt again found a way to lead the Wave down the field, connecting with Wyatt for the longer of the receiver’s two TDs, and UCF didn’t threaten again.

THE TAKEAWAY

UCF: Knights sophomore backup QB Mikey Keene, who had come in after Plumlee injuries for comeback victories over Cincinnati and South Florida, did not dress for the game. That allowed him to retain a year of eligibility, but also raised questions over whether he might test the transfer portal.

Tulane: It was a dream end to week that got off to a less-than-ideal start with reports out of Atlaata that head coach Willie Fritz being pursued by Georgia Tech.

“Well, I sure am glad I stayed,” Fritz said. “I made a commitment to these kids and the last thing I ever wanted to be was a distraction. So, I’m just proud to be here.”

UP NEXT

UCF: Awaits a bowl bid on Sunday.

Tulane: Heads to its most significant bowl appearance since losing 14-13 to Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1940.

Fofana helps Navy top No. 17 UCF 17-14

Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
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ORLANDO, Fla. – Fullback Daba Fofana rushed for 114 yards, and Navy beat No. 17 UCF 17-14 on Saturday without completing a pass.

Navy (4-7, 4-4 American Athletic) possessed the ball for nearly 40 minutes and gained 248 yards, all on the ground. Xavier Arline threw incomplete on the team’s only passing attempt.

The loss dropped UCF (8-3, 5-2) out of first place in the AAC and all but eliminated the Knights’ chances of playing at home in the conference championship game.

“It’s frustrating, but we’ve got to play football no matter if we’re home or away,” defensive tackle Ricky Barber said. “Nobody can point fingers. Our plan is to win out at USF, and then no matter where we end up, we’ve got to put the ball down and play.”

Mikey Keene replaced quarterback John Rhys Plumlee in the second half and immediately led the Knights to their only touchdown of the game.

Keene completed his first three passes for 79 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown pass to Javon Baker. Plumlee then passed to Baker for the 2-point conversion, tying it at 14 early in the third quarter.

John Marshall forced Keene’s fumble on the Knights’ next possession. It was recovered by Colin Ramos at the UCF 34, and Bijan Nichols’ 45-yard field goal lifted Navy to a 17-14 lead with 8:22 left in the third.

After that it was all defense.

“We knew Plumlee was really dynamic with his legs but he was not as capable as a thrower as Mikey Keene was. So we had the mentality that this guy is probably not going to get out of the pocket as much,” said Marshall, who had four sacks and 10 total tackles. “Two different ballplayers, but I think we were able to get to both effectively.”

Navy had a 14-6 halftime lead after two long touchdown drives.

The Midshipmen took a 7-0 lead on Arline’s quarterback sneak with 8:20 left in the first quarter, completing a 75-yard drive.

“I feel like if we get off to a fast start, we’re a hard team to beat, just the nature of our offense and the way our defense is playing,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “I think that was huge for us to get off to a good start against these guys. We didn’t give them any momentum, even though they moved the ball.”

Field goals of 21 and 31 yards by Colton Boomer made it 7-6, but Navy drove 84 yards to another touchdown late in the first half. Vincent Terrell Jr. ran it in from the 8 with 1:33 left.

Plumlee, a senior who had led UCF’s ninth-ranked offense for most of the season, completed 11 of 18 passes for 107 yards and threw a long interception on the final play of the half. Keene finished 6 of 10 for 98 yards and a touchdown.

Marshall brought his season sack total to 10 1/2, also a Navy record.

UCF gained 314 total yards, well under its season average of 497.7.

“I think they’re spectacular on offense, and the way we were able to put pressure on the quarterback, I think, really affected them later in the game,” Marshall said. “Great defensive effort.”

TAKEAWAYS

Navy: Three weeks ahead of its 123rd showdown with Army, the Midshipmen gained a huge measure of respect late in a losing season. … Navy is now 8-1 in games without completing a pass in the Niumatolo era (15 years). … Navy’s previous win, against Temple on Oct. 29, was also accomplished without a completion.

UCF: The loss puts several different scenarios in play for the location of the AAC championship game. It also adds to the importance for the Knights’ game at South Florida next weekend.

UP NEXT

Navy: Plays against Army at Philadelphia on Dec. 10.

UCF: Plays at USF on Nov. 26.

Harvey scores 2 TDs as UCF beats No. 20 Cincinnati 25-21

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ORLANDO, Fla. – RJ Harvey had a 17-yard touchdown run with 48 seconds remaining, sending UCF to a 25-21 win over No. 20 Cincinnati on Saturday.

Harvey’s go-ahead TD capped a seven-play, 75-yard march directed by Mikey Keene. The backup quarterback was 4 for 4 for 57 yards on the drive.

Cincinnati (6-2, 3-1 American Athletic Conference) took a 21-18 lead with 3:04 remaining. Ryan Montgomery scored on a 39-yard touchdown run, and the Bearcats added the 2-point conversion on a Ben Bryant pass to Tyler Scott.

UCF (6-2, 3-1) took a 10-6 lead into halftime on the strength of a 26-yard touchdown run by Harvey. The Knights added a safety in the third quarter when Josh Celiscar sacked Bryant in the end zone.

Cincinnati had won six in a row since a season-opening loss to Arkansas. Bryant passed for 298 yards and a touchdown, and Montgomery had a team-high 40 yards rushing on three carries.

Harvey had 18 carries for 84 yards for UCF. The Knights finished with 258 yards on the ground and 247 through the air.

Following a fumble recovery, Bryant threw a 14-yard touchdown to Josh Whyte to make it 13-12 at the end of the third quarter. Whyte’s TD capped a 10-play, 84-yard drive.

UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee was 7 of 11 for 71 yards when he was knocked out of the game late in the first half. He also rushed for 31 yards.

THE TAKEAWAY

Cincinnati: Outside of Montgomery’s touchdown run, the Bearcats couldn’t get anything established on the ground.

UCF: Keene’s experience from starting 10 games last year as a true freshman proved to be invaluable. He walked into a tough situation, but one he was familiar with. Keene put together his best drive of the day when the Knights needed it most and kept UCF in contention for the American Athletic Conference championship.

UP NEXT

Cincinnati: Will host Navy next Saturday.

UCF: At Memphis next Saturday.