NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Michael Pratt accounted for 442 total yards and five touchdowns, Tyjae Spears highlighted his 199 yards rushing with a 60-yard score and No. 18 Tulane beat No. 22 UCF 45-28 on Saturday night in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
The victory virtually assured Tulane (11-2) would play in the Cotton Bowl – its first major New Year’s Day bowl since the 1939 season – only one season after going 2-10. Jubilant fans stormed field as the game ended, capping a campaign that would have been hard to conceive of a year ago with an equally unthinkable celebratory scene.
Pratt passed for a career-high 394 yards, including touchdowns of 73 yards to Duece Watts, 60 and 10 yards to Shae Wyatt and 43 yards to Lawrence Keys. Pratt also ran for a pivotal 18-yard touchdown with 4:04 left.
Spears electrified the sellout crowd of 30,118 at Tulane’s cozy, on-campus Yulman Stadium with his long scoring run on which he broke two tackles near the line of scrimmage, made two other defenders miss and hurdled his own fallen teammate after cutting back inside.
The Green Wave, which earned the right to host the title game by ending Cincinnati’s 32-game home winning streak last weekend, avenged a 38-31 regular-season loss to UCF (9-4) on the same field three weeks ago.
But UCF was not quite the same team because of QB John Rhys Plumlee’s nagging hamstring injury, which appeared to rob him of the explosiveness he displayed by running for 176 yards at Tulane on Nov. 12.
Plumlee struggled so much early on that coach Gus Malzahn pulled him from the game in the second quarter favor of Thomas Castellanos. But with Tulane up 24-7 in the middle of the third quarter, Malzahn put Plumlee back in as primarily a passer – and he nearly led the Kights all the way back.
Plumlee led UCF quickly for a touchdown to make it 24-14, converting a fourth-and-10 pass along the way and capping the drive with a 17-yarder to Kobe Hudson.
Tulane responded when both UCF safeties froze on a play-fake to Spears and Pratt found Watts running free behind the defense.
UCF cut it to 31-21 when former Virginia QB RJ Harvey took a backward pass from Plumlee and launched a 49-yard TD pass to Hudson.
And the Knights got the ball right back when Spears fumbled after catching a short pass on the Green Wave 30. And Isaiah Bowser’s 10-yard run shortly after got UCF as close as 31-28 with 9:48 still to play.
But Pratt again found a way to lead the Wave down the field, connecting with Wyatt for the longer of his two touchdowns, and UCF didn’t threaten again.
UCF: Knights sophomore backup QB Mikey Keene, who had come in after Plumlee injuries for comeback victories over Cincinnati and South Florida, did not dress for the game. That allowed him to retain a year of eligibility, and questions swirled over whether he intended to transfer with Plumlee expected to return next season. Plumlee finished 29 of 39 for 209 yards and one TD, but finished with minus-7 yards rushing as Tulane had six sacks.
Tulane: Tulane might have won more comfortably if not turning for two turnovers, including a lost fumble at the UCF 1 when the Wave led 24-7 in the third quarter.
The next time UCF returns to New Orleans probably won’t be to play Tulane. The Knights are among three teams, along with Cincinnati and Houston, leaving the AAC for the Big 12 after the current academic year. But Big 12 teams to visit New Orleans at least once a year because the conference has a tie-in with the Sugar Bowl.
UCF: Awaits a bowl bid on Sunday.
Tulane: Heads to its most significant bowl appearance since losing 14-13 to Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1940.
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