GLENDALE, Ariz. — It was supposed to be the biggest mismatch of the bowl season, and it was very nearly so. No. 15 Central Florida saw to that nicely.
The Knights rode junior quarterback Blake Bortles to the biggest victory in program history — their 12th of the season — and nothing else really comes close.
Central Florida 52, No. 6 Baylor 42, in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium.
As wide receiver Josh Reese sprinted with a large UCF banner from one end of the field to the other after time expired, it seemed appropriate that the Knights could not be kept out of the end zone even after the game ended.
Baylor, a 17-point favorite, entered with the most productive offense in the NCAA FBS subdivision, but the Bears never appeared to be the best team on the field this New Year’s Day, and by the fourth quarter, they never really had a chance in the final Fiesta Bowl of the current BCS format.
Ring in the new, indeed.
Whether Central Florida will be a player in the playoff system that will debut next season, which will be geared more to strength of schedule than conference tie-ins, remains to be seen. It may prove to be another stair to climb. But on this night, the Knights looked as if they could play with anyone.
Baylor (11-2) averaged 624.5 yards and 53.3 points in earning the Big 12’s automatic BCS bid. It was a supposed an offensive juggernaut, but this night was reminiscent of day decades ago when then-Arizona Cardinals coach Gene Stallings said, "What’s a juggernaut?"
Bortles, a local central Florida product who was recruited more as a tight end than a quarterback out of high school, was the difference-maker in the highest-scoring game in the 43-year history of the Fiesta Bowl.
A 6-foot-3 junior, Bortles did it all, passing for 301 yards, rushing for a career-high 93 more and accounting for four touchdowns, three passing.
"They did a good job of running the zone read most of the night. QB hadn’t carried the ball much throughout the year, but he was very effective tonight," said Baylor coach Art Briles, a born-and-bread Texan who oversaw the program’s rise from the ashes and is reported to be one of the top candidates to replace Mack Brown at Texas.
It would be absolutely no surprise if Bortles follows Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s lead and declares for the NFL draft shortly. He might do it on the plane home. His 394 yards of total offense were 37 short of the Fiesta Bowl record set by Louisville quarterback Browning Nagle against Alabama in 1991.
As the Knights took the podium to accept the Fiesta Bowl trophy, the three remaining sections filled with the Central Florida fans who made the 2,200-mile trip from Orlando, Fla., started a chant.
"One more year! One more year! One more year!"
They can only hope Bortles was paying attention.
Central Florida (12-1) set a school record for victories in coach George O’Leary’s 10th season, only the program’s 35th. The Knights did not join the FBS until 1996, and they went 0-11 in O’Leary’s first season in 1994. Even this season, some believed Central Florida got into the Fiesta as a so-called "BCS buster" because of its No. 15 ranking, failing to remember it was an automatic BCS qualifier after winning the American Athletic Conference, formerly the Big East.
O’Leary bristled at one point in the postgame press conference when he was asked if the victory gives the Knights some legitimacy.
"What the hell kind of question was that?" he said before continuing in a milder vein. "We played a lot of good football teams throughout the years, did well, proved our legitimacy. Each year we’ve chipped away, tried to get a little more done with the program."
The Knights started strong Wednesday, scoring on their first two drives, before a destructive phase of three turnovers in three plays, two of them Bortles interceptions and one a fumble by senior running back Storm Johnson. Baylor did not capitalize when it had those chances, however, and even though the Bears scored the first touchdown of the second half to tie it at 28, the Knights came right back with touchdowns on their next two possessions.
UCF never let up, a trait it showed while beating Penn State and Louisville, two of its seven victories by a touchdown or less. Its only loss was to No. 9 South Carolina by a field goal.
"We had every big win in school history this year. They had resiliency about them," O’Leary said.
Johnson scored on 11- and 2-yard runs in the first quarter and added the Knights’ final touchdown, from 40 yards out, for a 49-35 lead with 10 minutes left while finishing with a game-high 124 yards rushing. His full name is Westleigh Storm Johnson.
"I guess my mom wanted to name me something special," he said several years ago after transferring from Miami (Fla.).
Special. On this night, the description fit Johnson, Bortles and the rest of the Knights.