Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo was watching Cincinnati tape in preparation for that game two weekends ago.
Niumatalolo could clearly see the Bearcats were good after reviewing several contests it won. He then got to the Central Florida game, a 25-21 loss for Cincinnati.
As much as he wanted to focus on Cincy, Niumatalolo could not help evaluating UCF as well. It was unsettling because the 15th-year head coach knew the Midshipmen had to face the Knights two weeks later.
“A few weeks ago we were watching the Cincinnati-UCF tape and it was like ‘Oh my gosh!’ You’re trying to get ready for Cincy, but then you see UCF and it’s not a good feeling,” Niumatalolo said.
Some thoughts and observations about the Navy-Notre Dame game at M&T Bank Stadium. The @NavyFB second-half defense was remarkable, QB Xavier Arline brings a different dimension, revisiting the spectacular catch by @NDFootball WR Braden Lenzy.https://t.co/Eiu2hssMVK pic.twitter.com/gvv4t1KCiv
What Niumatalolo and the rest of the Navy coaching staff saw was a UCF squad that was impressive on both sides of the ball. Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee directs an offense averaging almost 36 points and 500 yards per game. Linebacker Jason Johnson spearheads a defense that ranks among the national leaders in almost every key category.
Navy travels to Orlando on Saturday hoping to play spoiler against UCF, which sits atop the American Athletic Conference standings and is No. 20 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. Record-wise, UCF (8-2, 5-1) is tied with Cincinnati and Tulane, but beat both those teams head-to-head.
If the Knights close the regular season by beating Navy (3-7, 3-4) and South Florida (1-9, 0-6) it will clinch a berth in the AAC championship game.
This closes out a grueling three-game stretch for Navy, which rose to the challenge and played tough in close losses to Cincinnati (20-10) and Notre Dame (35-32) the previous two Saturdays.
“UCF is playing really well right now and it’s going to be a great challenge down there at their place,” Niumatalolo said. “Hopefully, these last two games against Cincinnati and Notre Dame have given us the best preparation for this team.”
Since suffering a surprising setback at East Carolina, UCF has responded with three straight wins over teams in the top tier of the AAC standings. This past Saturday, UCF scored a 38-31 victory over Tulane, which had held first place in the American.
Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry has the unenviable task of trying to slow down an offense that pretty much shredded all comers. UCF was limited to 14 points in an early season loss to Louisville and was beaten soundly in all three phases during the curious 34-13 debacle at East Carolina.
However, the Knights have scored 34 points or more in six of eight wins, exploding for 73 in a blowout of Temple.
“It’s a high-octane offense and they’ve got speed everywhere — quarterback, running back, wide receivers,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s a fun offense to watch on TV. I don’t like it so much from the opposing sideline. They are so explosive and have speed everywhere.
“These guys will give you wind burn, they’re going so fast.”
UCF has remained among the elite programs in the American despite a series of coaching changes.
Guz Malzahn, who was head coach at Auburn from 2013 through 2020, replaced Josh Huepel and made sure UCF has not missed a beat. He boasts a 17-6 record in two seasons on the sidelines.
Prolific offense has been the one staple for UCF through each of the coaching regimes and Malzahn has kept that tradition alive. He was a longtime offensive coordinator at Arkansas, Tulsa and Auburn, which captured the 2010 national championship with Cam Newton at quarterback.
“Gus is super-creative on offense. He has a lot of different ways to hurt you,” Niumatalolo said. “They stretch you horizontally and vertically with their speed. It’s going to be a tall order because of all the problems it presents.”
Plumlee is a transfer from Mississippi, where he started three games as a freshman after Matt Corral got injured. Corral regained the starting job and Rhys Plumlee primarily played wide receiver as a sophomore and junior.
Plumlee, who also played baseball at Ole Miss, is the epitome of a dual-threat quarterback and leads UCF in rushing with 708 yards and nine touchdowns. He has been effective as a passer as well, completing 156 of 246 (63%) of attempts for 2,015 yards and 12 scores.
Plumlee was just named AAC Offensive Player of the Week after accounting for 308 total yards of offense against Tulane. He set a single-game school record with 176 rushing yards.
Tailback RJ Harvey is the other key figure for a UCF rushing attack that ranks fifth nationally with 249.5 yards per game. Harvey is averaging an eye-popping 7.3 yards per carry. Fifth-year senior Isaiah Bowser is the short-yardage specialist and has scored 13 rushing touchdowns, eighth-most in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
UCF is 12-1 at FBC Mortgage Stadium under Malzahn. That on-campus facility, which has been nicknamed the Bounce House, seats almost 46,000 and is usually filled to capacity by raucous students and a rabid fan base.
It’s an unusual 11 a.m. start in Orlando to accommodate ESPN television and Niumatalolo hopes that favors the Midshipmen, whose weekly workday begins at 6:30 a.m. Navy has been outscored 81-36 in the first quarter this season and has fallen behind early in seven of 10 games.
This past Saturday’s game against Notre Dame was a noon kickoff and Navy fell behind 14-0 in the opening period.
“Hopefully, UCF is not used to early starts. I’m hoping we get off to a fast start, but I’ve been saying it for 11 straight weeks,” Niumatalolo said.
Navy knocked off UCF last season, 34-30, in Annapolis, rallying from a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Inside linebacker Diego Fagot forced a fumble that was recovered by Navy and that turnover led to fullback Isaac Ruoss scoring the winning touchdown on a 4-yard run with 3:09 remaining.
The Midshipmen have played a lot of powerful opponents close this season only to fall short. Niumatalolo would love to Navy upset UCF to earn a signature win going into a three-week bye before the season-ending showdown against archrival Army.
“It’s kind of like we get to the top of the mountain then tumble back down. We climb, climb, climb then stumble and fall,” Niumatalolo said. “It would be awesome for our program, our seniors, our entire team to get over the hump. Hopefully, these last couple games [against Cincinnati and Notre Dame] show our guys we can play with these types of people.”
Navy at No. 20 Central Florida
Saturday, 11 a.m.
Radio: 1430 AM
Line: UCF by 16 1/2
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