Ball St.-UCF Preview

A heartbreaking overtime loss in the Conference USA title game
cost UCF a spot in the Liberty Bowl. The consolation prize for the
Knights is getting to play a relatively short distance from campus
– albeit against an unexpected opponent that will be looking for
its seventh straight victory.

UCF tries to bounce back when it faces Ball State in the Beef
‘O’ Brady’s Bowl at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., on
Friday night.

The Knights (9-4) led by six going into the fourth quarter
against Tulsa on Dec. 1 but allowed a 54-yard punt return for a
score that pushed the game to overtime, where the Golden Hurricane
prevailed 33-27. UCF had a 38-yard field goal blocked to start the
extra period.

“It’s very disappointing, to come that far, have it down in
overtime, miss the field goal and have them score a touchdown,”
running back Latavius Murray said. “We didn’t come here to lose and
we just have to do what we have to do and make sure we win the bowl
game.”

The Knights may be playing in front of what amounts to a home
crowd as they try to do that, as they’ll travel only 100 miles to
Tropicana Field – a much closer destination than Memphis, where
Tulsa is headed for the Liberty Bowl.

“We are very pleased with the opportunity to go to the Beef ‘O’
Brady’s Bowl and the chance to play Ball State who has a 9-3
record,” coach George O’Leary told the school’s official website.
“We’re looking forward to the competition as well as the
festivities in St. Petersburg.”

UCF made its first trip to the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl in 2009,
suffering a 45-24 loss to Rutgers. The Knights will play in this
game for the final time as a C-USA member as they head to the Big
East for next season, but they may be back given the bowl’s
affiliation with that conference.

The high-scoring Knights, averaging 35.2 points, are led by
Blake Bortles, who threw for 2,787 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven
interceptions. The bruising Murray has powered the ground game with
1,035 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns, though he failed to reach
100 yards in the last three games after a four-game stretch in
which he ran for at least 117 each time.

UCF has five players that have run for at least 162 yards and it
has scored 31 touchdowns on the ground – seven by Bortles.

UCF will be facing something of a mirror image in Ball State,
which is averaging only 0.2 fewer points than the Knights. The
Cardinals’ Keith Wenning has passed for 2,878 yards, 22 TDs and 10
INTs, while sophomore Jahwan Edwards has rushed for 1,321 yards and
14 scores.

Edwards has been particularly effective during Ball State’s win
streak, averaging 131.0 yards with nine touchdowns in the six
games. He ran for three TDs to power the Cardinals past Miami of
Ohio 31-24 in their regular-season finale Nov. 23.

Ball State won without Wenning, who suffered an ankle injury
while catching a pass against Ohio on Nov. 14. His status for the
bowl game is uncertain.

The junior has posted a 143.8 passer rating in his last five
contests. The Cardinals also lost Wenning’s backup Kelly Page in
the third quarter against Miami, leaving freshman Kyle Kamman to
make his collegiate debut.

If Wenning and Page can’t go, Ball State will likely lean even
more heavily on its powerful ground attack, which averages 214.3
yards. Along with Edwards, the Cardinals have Horactio Banks, who’s
rushed for 585 yards in 10 games.

“I have had the opportunity to look at them on film. It is going
to be a great competition and I am looking forward to the
challenge,” O’Leary said of Ball State.

While Ball State’s offense should give it a chance to extend the
winning streak, the Cardinals’ defense may need to be considerably
better than it’s been for most of the season. They are allowing
205.8 yards per game on the ground – near the bottom of the FBS –
and 217.7 through the air, which could prove fatal against the
balanced UCF attack.

Ball State opponents are averaging 31.5 points.

“This game against Central Florida is going to be a tremendous
challenge for our program, so we are going to have to do a great
job in preparation, but we certainly hope to come down here and
represent Ball State well,” said coach Pete Lembo, whose squad is
filling a slot for the Big East, which didn’t have enough
bowl-eligible teams to fill the league’s commitments.

The Cardinals are 0-5 in bowls, with their last appearance
coming in the 2008 season, a 45-13 loss to Tulsa in the GMAC Bowl.
UCF’s last bowl appearance in 2010 yielded its first victory in
four overall tries, 10-6 over Georgia in the Liberty Bowl.

UCF has taken two of three meetings with Ball State, the most
recent in 2004 when both teams played in the Mid-American
Conference. Another victory in the series would enable the Knights
to finish with at least 10 wins for the fourth time in history.