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UCF powers past Houston, extends bowl streak to 8 seasons

R.J. Harvey rushes for 136 yards and two touchdowns, and John Rhys Plumlee throws for one score and runs for another to lead the Knights.
 
UCF wide receiver Xavier Townsend, left, scores a 28-yard touchdown past Houston defensive lineman David Ugwoegbu (12) during the first half of Saturday's game in Orlando.
UCF wide receiver Xavier Townsend, left, scores a 28-yard touchdown past Houston defensive lineman David Ugwoegbu (12) during the first half of Saturday's game in Orlando. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published Nov. 25, 2023|Updated Nov. 25, 2023

ORLANDO — R.J. Harvey rushed for 136 yards and his two second-half touchdowns powered UCF to its eighth straight season of bowl eligibility as the Knights wrapped up their first season in the Big 12 with a 27-13 win over Houston on Saturday.

Harvey in the process wrote himself into UCF (6-6, 3-6 Big 12) history with his 15th and 16th rushing touchdowns of the year, tying him for the second most in the program’s history. His 1,296 rushing yards for the season place him fourth.

It was a strong way to cap off their first season in the Big 12 despite the struggles of a five-game losing streak to debut in the new conference. Reaching bowl eligibility was sill an important marker for the team.

“It was really important,” Harvey said. “The season didn’t go how we wanted it to go. To close it out with a win, get six wins and go to a bowl game is really big for the first time in the Big 12.”

The Knights had to rally themselves throughout the season. That was the case in the finale against Houston (4-8, 2-7), too.

But after a back-and-forth first half, UCF took control in the second half with a three-play 81-yard drive to open the third quarter. That drive started with a 57-yard pass from John Rhys Plumlee to Javon Baker before Harvey capped it off with a 21-yard touchdown run.

Plumlee had a big game for the Knights, completing 23 of 27 for 253 yards and rushing for 58 more. He threw for one touchdown and ran for another.

“UCF has been playing championship-caliber football for a long time,” Plumlee said. “We just wanted to continue that legacy. We obviously went through a rough patch and so it’s been tough on us. To be able to grind it out and get to a bowl game is a pretty special thing for this team to do.”

The game was not without its chances for Houston.

Quarterback Donovan Smith led the Cougars on an eight-play, 75-yard drive on the opening possession of the game, throwing a forward pitch to Stephon Johnson for a 16-yard touchdown. Smith tallied 161 pass yards and 24 rush yards.

The Cougars struggled to get back on the board, failing to find the end zone the rest of the game and driving into UCF territory just once in the second half.

Houston’s only score in the second half came on a field goal when the Cougars were driven back from the goal line by two penalties and a sack from UCF’s Jason Johnson.

“Our inability to be able to execute and focus was a problem,” Houston coach Dana Holgersen said. “We had a hard time getting things going in the second half. They came out and we didn’t know what we were going to get out of them in the second half and they turned things up. I thought we were about to turn things up and we didn’t. They did.”

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UCF outgained Houston 476-260 for the game and 204-74 in the second half. The Knights recorded four sacks and seven tackles for a loss.

Senior superlatives

UCF honored its seniors in a ceremony before the game. Honorees on the field included linebacker Jason Johnson, defensive lineman Tre’Mon Morris-Brash, wide receiver Kobe Hudson, quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, offensive lineman Lokahi Pauole, defensive Josh Celiscar and running back R.J. Harvey.

Hudson tied his career-high in receptions in the first quarter and finished with a career-high nine catches for 98 yards.

UCF coach Gus Malzahn said he credited his seniors for keeping the team together during a five-game losing streak to rally and finish the season strong to reach bowl eligibility and get one more game together.

Big 12 debuts

Both UCF and Houston — along with Cincinnati and BYU — struggled to get their footing in their first season in the Big 12. The four newcomers combined for a record of 7-25 in the conference entering the final weekend with those four teams combining for only four wins against legacy Big 12 opponents. The Cougars were the only team to get two wins over those teams.

Holgersen helped transition West Virginia from the Big East to the Big 12 back in 2012 and called this transition very different than it was 10-plus years ago because of the nature of the transfer portal.

His first Big 12 team at West Virginia finished 4-5 in conference play.

Boom and bust

UCF kicker Colton Boomer has been a model of consistency all season making 12 of 17 field goals, including kicks of 50- and 55-yards in the win over Boise State. Before missing an extra point at the end of last week’s game against Texas Tech, Boomer had made 84 straight PATs (the third-longest streak at UCF).

But Boomer missed a field goal late and had a PAT blocked against Texas Tech last week. Those struggles continued as he missed a PAT off the upright, pushed a 42-yard field goal wide right and had a 27-yard field goal blocked to end the first half.

UCF coach Gus Malzahn said the team hopes he can adjust his form and get back on track during the time off before the bowl game.

Up next

Houston’s season is over after finishing 4-8 overall and 2-7 in their inaugural Big 12 season.

UCF finished its season at 6-6 overall and 3-6 in their debut season in the Big 12. They will await their decision on a bowl game next week.

By PHILIP ROSSMAN-REICH Associated Press

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