First-half turnovers doom UCF Knights in 1st AAC loss at East Carolina; 3 takeaways

UCF Knights head coach Gus Malzahn walks the sideline during the second quarter Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, against the Temple Owls at FBC Mortgage Stadium in Orlando, Florida.

Holton Ahlers made his — and East Carolina's, for the foreseeable future — final showdown against UCF count.

The fifth-year senior quarterback, who made his ECU debut in 2018 against the Knights, completed 30 of 36 passes for 311 yards and accounted for two touchdowns in a 34-13 win Saturday night at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

Keaton Mitchell added 105 yards and a pair of second-half touchdowns on the ground for the Pirates (5-3, 3-2).

"It feels like crap right now. They got after us," UCF head coach Gus Malzahn said. "They beat us handily, and sometimes you've got to be a man about it."

UCF, which received votes in both the AP Top 25 and the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll, saw its four-game winning streak snapped. The Knights (5-2, 2-1) defeated ECU in each of the previous six head-to-head meetings, but now trail the all-time series 11-10 after tasting defeat in a rubber match.

The two programs spent the better part of two decades together in the same league, first in Conference USA and then in the American Athletic Conference. UCF departs for the Big 12 on July 1, 2023.

Here are three takeaways from the Knights' dismal first out-of-state road trip of the 2022 season.

Last week's game recap:John Rhys Plumlee has 7 TDs, UCF blows out Temple in 'Space Game'

Photos: Scenes from 'Space Game' between UCF and Temple

New uniforms: UCF's latest Space Game uniforms are out. Here are past looks by the Knights

UCF Knights quarterback John Rhys Plumlee (10) throws a pass during the first quarter Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, against the Temple Owls at FBC Mortgage Stadium in Orlando, Florida.

1. First-half turnovers, and lots of them

UCF averaged 7.9 yards per play before halftime, and converted 4 of 5 times on third down.

And neither of those stats mattered at all because the Knights gave the ball away on each of their first three possessions.

"You cannot turn the ball over and expect to have a chance to beat a quality team, especially on the road," Malzahn said. "We were loose with the ball and didn't take care of it.

The Knights were given a reprieve out of the gate after ECU kicker Andrew Conrad drilled the left upright on a 25-yard field goal attempt, spoiling a promising first Pirates drive.

UCF looked in business and in rhythm when Isaiah Bowser broke off his longest run of the year on a 30-yard Wildcat keeper, but ECU fooled John Rhys Plumlee two plays later, resulting in an easy pick by Jireh Wilson.

Wilson got his hands on the ball a second time on the Knights' next drive. Plumlee slipped out of the pocket and gained 19 yards before being stripped by Julius Wood, and Wilson being right on the spot to snatch the fumble out of the air.

Plumlee's third turnover came on 4th-and-5 from the Pirates' 37, throwing into double coverage along the right sideline. Malik Fleming sunk underneath in coverage and grabbed the errant throw.

"There's not much you really need to say to (Plumlee); he's very hard on himself," Bowser said. "He knows what he needs to do. For me, as a captain, I tell him to pick his head up, that we're behind him and don't remember the past. It's all about moving forward."

ECU made those turnovers count, scoring all 17 of their first-half points on the ensuing drives. Ahlers rushed for a 3-yard touchdown, and then set a program record with his 87th career TD pass — a 39-yard connection to C.J. Johnson.

UCF Knights quarterback John Rhys Plumlee (10) looks to pass during the second quarter Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, against the Temple Owls at FBC Mortgage Stadium in Orlando, Florida.

2. ECU succeeds on third down, in red zone

Ahlers did something no other quarterback has done against the Knights to date this season — carve them up in clutch situations.

East Carolina scored two touchdowns in the red zone against the nation's top-ranked unit, one which allowed only five all year in 21 such situations. Mitchell delivered a crucial response for the Pirates after Bowser pulled UCF within 17-10 immediately out of halftime, rounding the corner for a 6-yard TD run to cap a nine-play, 75-yard possession.

The Pirates drained the clock whenever they controlled the ball. Each of their first six drives covered at least 55 yards and seven plays; five of them spanned at least four minutes, as well.

"What stood out to me is they controlled the tempo and the time of possession. We couldn't get off the field," Malzahn said.

Notching his 15th career 300-yard passing performance, Ahlers had answers for whatever UCF defensive coordinator Travis Williams and his players threw at him. The Pirates converted 9 of 14 times on third down, another huge strength for the Knights in the opening half of the season.

"A lot of the time, we got good pressure on him, but he just got the ball out quick," linebacker Jason Johnson said. "It's really unfortunate that we couldn't pick up the slack. Usually, we pick it up around the second half. We just couldn't this time."

The Pirates did not punt the football until the 7:25 mark of the fourth quarter.

3. College GameDay spoiled?

Lee Corso might have accidentally spilled the beans Saturday morning about College GameDay's potential return to UCF for next weekend's homecoming date with Cincinnati.

During the popular ESPN show's weekly game picks segment, Corso predicted Cincinnati to defeat SMU on the road — and offered up a surprisingly juicy tidbit.

"Cincinnati wins and sets up a big game for College GameDay, maybe, at UCF in downtown Orlando," Corso said.

Longtime co-host Kirk Herbstreit replied in jest, "Really? I was unaware of that."

It's all a moot point now, of course.

College GameDay made one prior trip to UCF on Nov. 17, 2018. The crew set up shop in Memory Mall ahead of a nationally televised contest between the Knights and none other than Cincinnati.

The Knights pulled away for a 38-13 win in prime time, improving to 10-0 on the way to a second straight undefeated regular season.

Cincinnati — ranked No. 21 in the AP Top 25 — held up its end of the bargain earlier Saturday, fending off a late SMU rally for a 28-26 win in Dallas.

Had the Knights won, especially with the same panache they displayed in last Thursday's 70-13 thrashing of Temple, they likely would have entered the polls as well.

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: NCAA football: 3 takeaways from UCF Knights-East Carolina Pirates