After struggling in the wake of defensive player injuries that took a toll but never knocked them off their eight-game win streak, the Knights will have more than 20 days to rest before the biggest game in team history. And after Sunday night’s announcement they know they’re heading to Glendale, Ariz., to face Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
But until this weekend the Knights thought they’d be heading to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. The change of flight schedule was set into motion Friday night, when unranked Bowling Green upset the Northern Illinois Huskies, who were No. 14 in the BCS Standings at the time, with a 47-27 rout. That loss put UCF in position to play in NIU’s place, a presumptive slot in the Fiesta Bowl. After UCF’s win over SMU in Dallas on Saturday night, their fate was all but sealed.
Ten years after head coach George O'Leary took the helm of the UCF Knights football team, they hammered in their final win in their best season ever en route to their biggest bowl game. The Knights (11-1, 8-0) kept things interesting, but controlled their destiny all the way to the closing siren in another nail-biter finish against SMU Saturday.
“They hung in there and made some good adjustments at halftime,” Head Coach George O’Leary told UCFKnights.com after the game. “We came out in the no-huddle and Blake did an outstanding job of controlling the ball.”
UCF had struggled against the bitter cold all game, which had been in the 20s on account of a morning kickoff in Central Time. The Knights dropped passes, flubbed throws and fumbled runs in the frigid weather in Dallas, where snow ringed the edges of the field all game. Quarterback Blake Bortles found the end zone himself in the deciding score, racing to the left sideline and cruising past the pylon to put the Knights up for good. Bortles would throw for 242 yards to lead the Knights to victory.
After barely cracking double-digit yardage in the first quarter, the Knights would go on to rack up 338 yards in the game after accelerating their offense in the second half. They would outgun the Mustangs offense, which had 313 yards, most of them on the ground. Where UCF led substantially was first downs, gaining 24 versus SMU's 15.
For the better half of the fourth quarter the Knights were in control, shutting down the Mustangs' defense and driving down the field, despite icy hands that had trouble on receptions and runs.
UCF receiver Rannell Hall had crucial catches all game to advance the offense, and the UCF defense found ways to stop the SMU offense in the second half after giving a concussion to SMU quarterback Neal Burcham in the fourth quarter. Hall would catch 44 yards of receptions. Wide receiver Jeff Godfrey led the team in reception yardage with 62 yards.
The Knights had trouble early on after letting the Mustangs score first with a short field goal to put it to 3-0. The Knights wouldn't catch up to the Mustangs until after the half, overtaking them in the fourth quarter and holding on for the win.
Thanks to the win, which set a school record for the team’s first sweep of conference play in team history, the Knights finish the regular season ranked No. 15 in the BCS Standings – an all-time high.
At 8:30 p.m. on New Year’s Day they face the most prolific offense in NCAA Division 1 football this season. The Baylor Bears have gained an average of 624.5 total yards per game and 53.3 points per game, about 20 points more per game than the Knights.
But the Bears have also been known to give up big plays, making for high-scoring games for both teams. With the Knights’ prolific offense that has turned on for blowout performances against Akron, FIU, UConn and Rutgers, it could be an offensive slugfest. The game will be aired on ESPN.