Call him a legend, call him a cult hero, call him whatever you want: Mikey Keene cemented his place in UCF Football history on Saturday night.
Hosting No. 20 Cincinnati, the team’s first ranked opponent since 2020 (and their first in front of a non-COVID-reduced crowd since 2018), the Knights had their backs against the wall. And in the end, Keene got a moment that he truly deserved.
Of course, Keene’s moment came under circumstances that no one wants to see. Starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee took a vicious hit to the head in the second quarter, resulting in him having to leave the game. That forced the offense into the hands of Keene, who looked poised and in control the entire rest of the way. The result was UCF’s biggest home win since those magical 2017 and 2018 seasons.
The sophomore finished 15-of-21 for 176 yards and led two go-ahead touchdown drives in the waning moments of the fourth quarter. The first drive, a 13-play, 77-yarder that took 5:57, gave UCF an 18-13 lead. Then, the Bearcats answered back and put Keene and the Knights offense in a do-or-die situation.
UCF trailed by three with 3:08 to go. It could’ve been a moment that was too big. It could’ve been a little too much for a quarterback who hasn’t played in a game since last December after being passed over for the starting job heading into this season. But Keene, as Gus Malzahn puts it, “is a winner with a capital W.”
Keene methodically led the Knights down the field and put them in position for RJ Harvey’s game-winning 17-yard touchdown run with 48 seconds remaining. The seven-play, 75-yard drive saw Keene complete passes of 18, 26 and 12 yards to three different receivers. Harvey capped it off with his second touchdown run and moments later, the Knights’ defense sealed the deal. UCF 25, Cincinnati 21.
The Knights’ three-game losing streak against the Bearcats was over. It meant something extra to Keene, too. He was there when last year’s young, banged-up UCF squad lost 56-21 on the road at No. 3 Cincinnati. In fact, it was his second career start. And he didn’t forget it.
After Saturday’s game, Keene found the nearest camera to remind everyone that he “owed them.”
In his postgame press conference, he put those words into context.
“Honestly, I’ve had this game circled since last year [when] we played them,” Keene said. “We owed them one.”
Keene’s journey at UCF hasn’t been an easy one. Recruited to Orlando by Josh Heupel, he suddenly found himself with a new coach in his freshman year. And despite not fitting that new coach’s ideal mold for a quarterback, he earned the No. 2 quarterback job out of camp.
What should’ve been a learning year then turned into a trial-by-fire season for Keene. After Dillon Gabriel went down in Week 3, he was forced into action. He had his highs and lows, but the Knights ultimately went 7-3 under their true freshman signal-caller. And that seventh win, of course, came over the Florida Gators in front of a sold-out Gasparilla Bowl crowd last December.
Things were looking up for Keene, but the fact still remained that he wasn’t a Malzahn-style quarterback. That meant he had an uphill battle for the starting job all offseason, with Plumlee providing more of a “fit” for the offense. Despite having a great camp, Keene was passed over. And ever since, he’s been on the outside looking in.
Until Saturday at the Bounce House, anyway. Necessity brought him back into the fold. UCF presumably wasn’t interested in burning true freshman Thomas Castellanos’ redshirt, which meant it was once again time for Keene to step in for an emergency situation.
Keene’s steady demeanor and crisp passing helped UCF knock off Cincinnati for a monumental win. It was a win that came one week after a 21-point loss at ECU. And it was also a win that kept the Knights in contention for the AAC title.
But more than that, it was a win and moment that Keene deserved. Having fans throughout the stadium chant his name, especially after the last several months, showed what he means to this program. And of course, this is another win that adds to his legacy as a Knight. He has now quarterbacked UCF to victories over Florida and No. 20 Cincinnati. That’s big-time winner with a capital W type stuff.
Keene has handled this season with grace. It can’t be easy watching from the sidelines after leading the team as a freshman and putting the work in throughout the offseason to do so again as a sophomore.
But as Malzahn tells it, Keene has been integral to the quarterback room all year long. He hasn’t sulked. He didn’t turn around and transfer right after losing the job, which he would’ve been well within his rights to do. He didn’t check out. Instead, he’s continued to do what he does best: work hard and lead. And that’s why Saturday night had to feel so rewarding.
Even if he does continue his career elsewhere after this season, Keene has earned his place in UCF history. For how he’s handled himself in the face of adversity, he has certainly done enough to endear himself to Knight Nation. And between beating Florida and now Cincinnati, he has delivered two unforgettable wins for this program.
Yeah, call him a legend. Call him a cult hero.
Mikey Keene has earned it.