LOUISVILLE - The Knights lost at the wire to the Louisville Cardinals Friday night, 42-35. The play that made the difference was a 66-yard pick-six by Louisville defender Jaylin Alderman with just seconds left on the clock after Knights’ receiver Amari Johnson could not come up with a slant pass over the middle.
However, there were countless plays in the fourth quarter that led up to that moment. Here’s a deeper look at the fourth quarter and what led up to that game-deciding play.
At the start of the fourth quarter, the Knights were driving down the field while being down 28-21. UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel threw a dart to wide receiver Brandon Johnson over the middle for a 6-yard touchdown. There was little window available to fit the pass but Johnson was able to make the contested grab to eventually tie the game after the point after was good by kicker Daniel Obarski.
On the ensuing possession, Louisville picked up one first down but was set to punt after Cardinals’ quarterback Malik Cunningham couldn’t convert a third and five.
The Cardinals attempted a fake punt, but the Knights were all over it. UCF had multiple players standing up off the line of scrimmage ready for the fake and made the stop for a turnover on downs.
This was a huge momentum play for the Knights and may be looked upon as the biggest missed opportunity in this game. They had just tied the game, forced a turnover, and now had the ball on the Louisville 49 yard line.
The Knights failed to capitalize and gave the ball right back to the Cardinals after a three-and-out. The missed opportunity proved deadly.
On that Knights’ possession, UCF Head Coach Gus Malzahn elected to run a trick play on first down. The ball was snapped to backup quarterback Joey Gatewood and ended up in the hands of Gabriel who was looking to hit a receiver deep. Nothing was open so Gabriel threw the ball out of bounds.
After a one-yard rush by running back Johnny Richardson, Gabriel threw the ball short to running back Trillion Coles on third-and-9 for just a three-yard gain.
It was one of the many instances that Gabriel, on a third and long, checked the ball down very short of the first down marker. The Knights were two for ten on third down conversions. It’s tough to win any football game with that kind of conversion rate.
The Louisville secondary was weary of the Knights’ deep attack all night. They consistently sent their two safeties deep on third downs, successfully covering the UCF receivers. Gabriel would then find the check down option, who would have his back turned to the Cardinals defense. Because of this, they were tackled almost immediately after making the catch with almost little chance of picking up the first down yardage.
The question is if the Knights would have had better success converting on third down if Gabriel would have tried to scramble and pick up first downs with his legs? Gabriel provided a few more nice runs against the Cardinals.
In any case, the game was still tied and the Cardinals took possession. At this point in the game, Cunningham was visibly injured. He was limping on and off the field. This greatly inhibited his running ability, which is his best asset.
Louisville Head Coach Scott Satterfield then drew up a play to take the ball out of Cunningham’s hands. The ball was snapped to Cunningham but was thrown backwards to receiver Braden Smith, who then launched it to wide-open receiver Treveon Cooley for a 45-yard touchdown, putting the Cardinals back in front, 35-28.
The Knights then went three-and-out, with Gabriel again throwing the ball short of the first down marker on third-and-5, completing the pass to receiver Ryan O’Keefe but doing the Knights no good, as he was tackled immediately for no gain.
After a big stop by the defense, UCF got the ball back with 3:40 to play. Richardson led the Knights offense down the field with multiple big runs. To his credit and the offensive line's credit, Richardson was handed the ball four times on the drive and went a total of 56 yards. It was the first time this season Richardson had his hand print on a game. After being listed as the No. 2 running back on the depth chart, Richardson saw a lot less action than expected in the first two games.
Richardson found himself with a big role because of the injury to Knights’ lead back, Isaiah Bowser, who was hobbled by an undisclosed leg injury earlier in the game. Bowser did come back in the game after sustaining the injury, but Coach Malzahn chose to run the other backs instead of risking further injury for Bowser.
Richardson’s big drive was capped off by a six-yard touchdown run by Dillon Gabriel, tying the score 35-35 with just 1:21 left in the game.
Louisville began their attempt at a game-winning drive with two timeouts, and slowly matriculated the ball down the field. With the ball on the UCF 46 yard-line and 32 seconds left, it looked like all the Cardinals needed was one more first down to send out the field goal unit for the game-winning score, but on third and four, Cunningham’s pass was tipped up at the line and caught by UCF defensive lineman Tre’mon Morris-Brash.
This was the best possible scenario for the Knights. Not only did they stop the Cardinals from scoring, in an attempt to simply force overtime, but they set themselves up in a position to score and end the game in regulation.
Taking over on offense at the Louisville 41-yard line, all the Knights needed was about 15 yards to give kicker Daniel Obarski a decent shot at making the game winner. They had 25 seconds and still had all three timeouts.
However, in a way that only football can provide, the best-case scenario for the Knights became a worst-case scenario in a matter of seconds.
A ball that probably should’ve been caught by Amari Johnson instead landed in the hands of the Cardinals’ Alderman and 66 yards later, Louisville had regained the lead 42-35 with nine seconds remaining, ripping the hearts out of all UCF affiliates.
It was all but a walk-off, as after the kickoff, the Knights had five seconds to try a 63-yard score, but it never had a chance. Gabriel threw short to Johnson who tried lateraling the ball back. After the ball fell loose on the ground, it ended up back in Gabriel’s hands, but he was pummeled into the ground, ending the game. As if that ending wasn’t bad enough, Gabriel remained on the ground for minutes after the game was over, and was seen with a sling on his throwing arm exiting the stadium.
This game, especially with how it ended, will be extremely tough for the Knights to get passed. It’s a sobering loss for a team with very high hopes. But, it wasn’t a conference loss, so there’s that. The Knights’ chance to play in the ACC championship will still run through Cincinnati.
The Knights will look to get back on their feet against Navy on October 2 after an upcoming bye week.