Blake Bortles and the No. 15 UCF Knights had to move their championship celebration inside. Not that a brutally cold Saturday in Texas affected them too much.
Bortles threw for 242 yards and ran for two touchdowns, and the Knights celebrated a BCS bid already in hand by adding the outright American Athletic Conference title to the mix. The 17-13 victory over SMU came in front of just a few hundred fans who braved the slick roads of a nasty ice storm.
”My hand got a little dry and that might explain a couple of errant throws,” said Bortles, who put UCF ahead for the first time on a 15-yard scramble to a touchdown that ended up being the final points late in the third quarter. ”But no excuses. Weather really didn’t have much of an impact on me.”
Surrounded by piles of ice cleared from the field in a scene more suitable for Green Bay or Denver and with completely empty stands behind their bench, the Knights (11-1, 8-0 AAC) set a school record with their eighth straight win.
UCF wrapped up the conference’s automatic BCS bid when Louisville beat Cincinnati on Thursday. This is the school’s second 11-win season, both in the past four seasons, in the program’s 34-year history.
The Knights, who went 11-3 in 2010 and beat Georgia in the Liberty Bowl, passed around the conference championship trophy in a much warmer locker room while the Mustangs held senior day ceremonies on the frigid field after the game.
”Everybody’s excited,” said UCF safety Brandon Alexander. ”A lot of people haven’t won a championship, me being one of them.”
SMU (5-7, 4-4) saw its record bowl streak end at four seasons in the coldest home game in school history – 24 degrees at kickoff. It matched the 1983 Sun Bowl in El Paso as SMU’s coldest game. It was UCF’s first game in sub-freezing temperatures.
Neal Burcham had 222 yards passing for the Mustangs and a touchdown to Keenan Holman, who led all receivers with 91 yards.
”For me not to be playing in a bowl game with these guys, it’s hurtful,” said Holman, a senior. ”I’m going to miss a lot of these guys.”
The wintry blast that virtually shut down the Dallas-Fort Worth area on Friday prompted officials to offer free admission. It didn’t help much, with fewer than 1,000 fans showing up for the game – far short of the announced attendance of 12,598.
The crowd stood throughout, but mostly because it was warmer that way. The east side of SMU’s campus stadium behind the UCF bench was empty.
There were a few UCF fans on the home side, and they were happy when Bortles scrambled around left end and beat everyone to the pylon to put the Knights up 17-13 late in the third quarter.
SMU twice failed on fourth down in UCF territory in the fourth quarter. Redshirt freshman Neal Burcham, making his second straight start for injured senior Garrett Gilbert, was stuffed and sustained an apparent head injury on fourth-and-1 with 8:22 remaining.
Garrett Krstich replaced him on the next drive and threw incomplete deep on his first play. Two snaps later, Clayton Geathers made a diving interception, but Central Florida’s Shawn Moffitt hit the upright on a 24-yard field that would have put the Knights up by a touchdown.
Krstich still couldn’t move the Mustangs. He was forced to scramble on fourth-and-14 and came up well short with 59 seconds left. The Mustangs finished with their first losing record under coach June Jones since he went 1-11 after taking over the moribund program in 2008.
”It’s disappointing that we will not be in a bowl game,” Jones said. ”We have to try to put it behind us, get the recruiting season started as we have all our commits pretty much lined up for next year.”
Players on both sidelines looked as if they were in perpetual calisthenics trying to stay warm, surrounded by mounds of ice that had been cleared from the field. At halftime, one of SMU’s flag was planted in the ice in the south end zone.
”I don’t know how much it affected (UCF players), but it affected me,” said Knights coach George O’Leary, who won his third conference title in his 10th season. ”It’s cold out there. And I’m from the north.”