ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) Mohamed Sanu was Mr. Everything for Rutgers, and the Scarlet Knights’ string of postseason success continues.
The multi-threat receiver ran for two touchdowns out of the wildcat formation and also scored on an 11-yard reception from Tom Savage, another true freshman who threw for a career-best 294 yards in Saturday night’s 45-24 victory over Central Florida in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
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Rutgers (9-4) claimed a school-record fourth consecutive bowl win to finish with at least nine victories for just the sixth time in 140 years. UCF (8-5) fell to 0-3 in bowl games under coach George O’Leary.
“That’s four straight bowl wins, five straight bowls,” said coach Greg Schiano, who has rebuilt Rutgers from the ground up over the past nine seasons. “You need to be consistent before you can be great. We’re going to be great someday – someday soon.”
Billy Anderson scored on a 19-yard interception return for Rutgers, which shut down 1,000-yard rusher Brynn Harvey, limiting the running back to 32 yards on 13 carries to end his streak of three consecutive games with at least 129.
“It was real frustrating. We wanted to open the running game up and things just didn’t go our way. Just couldn’t get it done,” Harvey said.
“They close to the ball very fast. We just couldn’t sustain blocks and we couldn’t protect our quarterback. It was just hard for us.”
The first Rutgers player since 1993 to run for a TD, throw for a TD and catch a pass for a TD in the same season, Sanu rushed for 41 yards on 13 carries and had four receptions for 97 yards.
He also set up UCF’s first touchdown, fumbling a punt that was recovered inside the Rutgers 10. Three plays later, Brett Hodges threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Kamar Aiken for a brief 7-7 tie.
“As the season progressed, we did more and more with the wildcat because we felt like he earned the touches,” Schiano said of Sanu, the Scarlet Knights’ second-leading receiver and rusher.
“We needed to get the ball in his hands, and that’s one way we could guarantee doing that. I think he did a great job.”
Tim Brown, whose status had been uncertain because of an ankle injury, put the Scarlet Knights ahead for good when he caught a pass over the middle and turned it into a 65-yard TD play.
“We stepped it up. We just kept pounding the ball and just kept making plays – the plays we needed to make,” Sanu said. “We did our assignment, did our job and got the job done.”
UCF won five of six after a 3-3 start to earn its third bowl bid in six years under O’Leary – a 106-mile ride from Orlando that’s the shortest trip any Football Bowl Subdivision team will make for a postseason game this year.
Rutgers beat South Florida in mid-November to climb into the Top 25 for the first time this season, but the Scarlet Knights wound up in St. Petersburg for a pre-Christmas matchup after losing two of three down the stretch to Syracuse and West Virginia.
Sanu scored on runs of 5 and 1 yards in the first half. His first reception, a 61-yard gain to the UCF 12 on a pass that was slightly underthrown, set up his 11-yard TD catch that made it 35-17 early in the third quarter.
Savage completed 14 of 27 passes and was intercepted once. Hodges was 13 of 28 for 175 yards and two interceptions for UCF before being hurting his shoulder and being replaced by Rob Calabrese late in the fourth quarter.
Central Florida had 5 yards net rushing before Calabrese scrambled for 30 for the big gainer in a 10-play, 75-yard march that Jonathan Davis finished with a 2-yard TD run.
Hoping for a chance to pull closer than 38-24, UCF tried an onside kick that Rutgers’ Damaso Munoz returned 35 yards for the Scarlet Knights’ final touchdown with 2:18 remaining.
The linebacker did a somersault into the end zone, drawing a penalty but also putting an exclamation point on the victory and setting off a celebration among Rutgers fans in the announced crowd of 29,673.
With the game being played so close to Orlando, more than half the tickets were sold by UCF.
“As I told the players, I was embarrased for the team that we didn’t go out and do a better job as far as for the fan base,” O’Leary said.
“Our offense never really got on track the whole day. … Rutgers defense was much better than our offense. I thought that was the difference, really, in the game.”