UCF Knights clinch BCS bowl berth

The UCF Knights are heading to a BCS bowl for the first time, thanks to a win over USF and punctuated by outlasting SMU 17-13 Dec. 7 in Dallas.

The UCF Knights are heading to a BCS bowl for the first time, thanks to a win over USF and punctuated by outlasting SMU 17-13 Dec. 7 in Dallas.

Isaac Babcock

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The Knights are at their highest ranking of the season after yet another heart attack-inducing finish that saw them edging the USF Bulls 23-20 on the gridiron Nov. 29. Now they're BCS bowl bound.

Thanks to an electrifying 34-28 win by Louisville over Cincinnati Thursday night, the Knights clinched the American Athletic Conference title and a prestigious BCS bowl berth. It's the first the Knights ever have attained in the team's 34-year history, putting them in the same echelon as college football titans.

Though the Knights' fate was ironically handed to them by their biggest foe this season, they had played their part in narrow escapes to give them ten wins so far, and most importantly only one loss.

With a well-timed interception after a torrent of turnovers that went the wrong way, the Knights snagged a win out of thin air in a chilly thriller in the Bright House last week against USF. Just as the Bulls seemed destined to tie or win the game, driving deep into UCF territory with less than two minutes to go, linebacker Jordan Ozerities’ hands snagged a Mike White pass and sent the tense crowd into a jubilant frenzy. That was accompanied by a collective sigh of relief in a game in which the Knights lost three fumbles and committed two interceptions, which contributed to half of USF’s scores.

"When you don’t play very well and have five turnovers, you don’t usually win games like that," Head Coach George O'Leary said in a press conference after the game. It had been 11 years since the Knights had won a game in which they gave up four or more turnovers.

Sunday night they found out what their sixth win by a touchdown or less would do for their ranking. The result, a No. 16 spot in the BCS standings, is the highest the team has ever been ranked. They debuted at No. 23 the same week the BCS standings debuted on Oct. 20, and have slowly moved their way into better numbers ever since.

Their slow and steady rise has come despite edging out victories by a touchdown or less in four games this season in which they were the favorite or the heavy favorite. Their first win in five attempts against rival USF was just the most recent in a string of edge-of-your-seat finishes that led to the 2013 Knights being dubbed “the heart attack kids.”

It had been a much closer game than expected Nov. 29 as the UCF Knights (10-1, 7-0) and the USF Bulls (2-8, 2-5) traded field goals and punts for much of the first half of the game.

After multiple fumbles handed USF its only scores of the first half, the Knights distanced themselves by halftime, but it wouldn't be enough of a margin of safety.

A seemingly off-balance Blake Bortles had trouble finding receivers, and rushers had trouble finding lanes as the Knights' offense failed to find a rhythm against an unexpectedly tough USF defense. Meanwhile the Bulls caught up to and overtook the Knights.

The bright spot that slowly began to shine as the game wore on would be running back Will Stanback, who became the yardage workhorse for the Knights after two scary fumbles early on by regular go-to runner Storm Johnson. Stanback would rush for 40 yards on 10 carries and catch 69 yards worth of receptions. Johnson would eventually find his hands and race to 69 yards on the ground and snag 62 yards in the air.

The game never had a wider scoring gap than a single touchdown separating the two teams for its duration, making for a hair-raising experience for the Knights, who came into the game heavy favorites.

But the grudge match turned into just that as the teams battled for the first time since USF terminated their rivalry five years ago in search of tougher competition. The teams met at the height of one of the Knights' all-time best seasons, while USF was struggling in one of its worst.

An offensive juggernaut in many games this season, the Knights only converted one third down conversion out of nine attempts in addition to their eyebrow-raising five turnovers.

The Knights would come away with a win thanks to a 52-yard Breshad Perriman touchdown reception and Ozerities' interception with less than two minutes to go to seal the deal as the Bulls were threatening.

The win clinched a share of the American Athletic Conference title for the Knights, who now own the AAC’s automatic BCS bowl bid.

The Knights travel to face SMU at noon on Dec. 7.

The Knights may have some advantages heading into Dallas. They’re undefeated on the road this season, though they’ve needed to score in the final two minutes of every AAC road game in order to win. And SMU star quarterback Garrett Gilbert is still questionable to start against UCF because of a knee sprain. Without Gilbert against Houston last week, the Mustangs lost 34-0 and threw three interceptions.