Tulane vs. UCF score, takeaways: Green Wave rout Knights to win AAC, clinch first major bowl berth since 1939
Tulane wins its first conference championship since being crowned Conference USA champs in 1998
No. 18 Tulane avenged its lone conference loss of the regular season, taking down No. 22 UCF in the American Athletic Conference Championship with a 45-28 win. The victory marks the program's first conference championship since winning Conference USA in 1998 and secures the team's spot in the Cotton Bowl against a New Years Six at-large selection. It will be the Green Wave's biggest postseason appearance since the 1940 Sugar Bowl. Tulane went 8-0-1 as a member of the SEC that season and faced 10-0 Texas A&M out of the Southwest Conference.
While Tulane's defense has been a calling card for the team's success during this 11-2 campaign, the offense was wildly productive in the win against UCF. Quarterback Michael Pratt threw for 394 yards and four touchdowns while adding 48 yards rushing and a score on the ground; running back Tyjae Spears totaled 199 rushing yards on 22 carries with a touchdown. Tulane's 649 of offense marked a season-high for the team, which had eclipsed even 500 yards of offense just once against an FBS opponent (564 in a 45-31 win at USF on Oct. 15) prior to Saturday.
Tulane could have won this game by even more, or at least avoided a late scare from UCF, had it not been for some early miscues. The Green Wave turned the ball over on downs and Pratt threw an interception in the first half to stifle scoring opportunities. The offense then proceeded to lose two fumbles in the second half as UCF made its charge back into the game. Knights quarterback John Rhys Plumlee entered the game banged up and was benched in the first half, but he returned with great success as he led three second-half touchdown drives. The Knights cut the lead all the way to 31-28, but then gave up a 60-yard touchdown to Shae Wyatt that proved to be the dagger in the contest.
UCF never got closer than that three-point deficit, turning the ball over on downs on the ensuing possession and then allowing another Tulane touchdown (Pratt's fifth) that put the game fully out of reach. Here's what else we learned from Saturday's AAC title game.
Season's best turnaround
No one in the country has seen a more impressive year-to-year turnaround than Tulane. The Green Wave were 2-10 in 2021, displaced by Hurricane Ida to start the year and on the losing end of one-score games against Oklahoma, UAB, UCF, Tulsa and Memphis. One year later Tulane is 11-2, conference champions for the first time in more than 20 years and carrying a head-to-head win against the new Big 12 champions in Kansas State. Coach Willie Fritz has orchestrated this turnaround by staying the course and trusting the program that he has built up to be a championship contender during his seven seasons in New Orleans.
Fritz's commitment pays off
Georgia Tech was reportedly interested in Fritz to be its next coach, but Tulane announced early in the week that Fritz had informed the school he was returning after this season. Fritz has, after all, built up this program so that it can be one of the AAC's best as the league undergoes a membership shuffle heading into 2023. Fritz is 42-25 in his seven seasons leading Tulane, and 2022 will mark the fourth time in five seasons that the Green Wave will be in a bowl game. Playing in the Cotton Bowl will mark a new program high for Tulane, and Fritz's decision to stay put in New Orleans makes it possible for the Green Wave to keep chasing big-time bowl games. In the expanded playoff era, this will be a team to watch every November as it competes to be one of the six highest-ranked conference champions or battle for an at-large bid.
UCF needed Plumlee earlier
The success of UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee in the second half will bring questions about his health and why he was not allowed to continue in the first half when Malzahn decided to play true freshman Thomas Castellanos instead. Plumlee was not anywhere close to being as effective in the run game as he was in the first meeting between these two teams, when UCF won 38-31 and Plumlee rushed for 176 yards, but his absence also made the Knights offense one-dimensional. When Plumlee returned in the second, half he brought much more success in the passing game, which further opened things up for the entire offense and allowed UCF to climb back into the game.
UCF roars back
Early 4Q: No. 18 Tulane 31, No. 22 UCF 28
UCF has scored two touchdowns in three minutes, getting a score, forcing a fumble and then it turning it into quick points to cut the Tulane lead to just 3 points. The Knights haven't gotten a lot of stops against Pratt in this half, but as long as Tulane continues to make mistakes to keep UCF in the game there will be a chance for Gus Malzahn's group to steal this AAC title and a Cotton Bowl bid.
Plumlee's return sparks success for UCF
End 3Q: Tulane 24, UCF 14
John Rhys Plumlee has returned to the game for UCF and brought with him some of the most offensive success we've seen from the Knights all afternoon. Plumlee completed passes of 20, 23 and 17 yards (the last of which was a touchdown) on a scoring drive late in the third quarter that has cut Tulane's lead to 10.
Thunderous start to the second half
3Q: Tulane 24, UCF 7
UCF's offense has become pretty one-dimensional with not much to show for the passing game. That's a problem as the Knights now face a 17-point third quarter deficit after the defense gave up a 60-yard touchdown run to Tyjae Spears. UCF has been able to run the ball effectively, but it will need to score quickly to avoid letting this game slip away here in the third quarter.