Arkansas State, Central Florida defensive stars align in Cure Bowl (Dec 17, 2016)
The two best defensive players in their respective conferences will be featured when Arkansas State and Central Florida clash in the AutoNation Cure Bowl on Saturday.
Kickoff at Camping World Stadium in Orlando is at 5:30 p.m. ET (CBS).
Defensive end Ja'Von Rolland-Jones was the Sun Belt Conference's overall Player of the Year for the Red Wolves (7-5).
"I think any time a defensive player is picked as Player of the Year it's a little bit surprising," Wolves coach Blake Anderson said. "It doesn't happen that often."
Rolland-Jones tied for the Sun Belt lead in tackles for a loss with 18 1/2 and had 11 1/2 sacks (second). Just a junior, he already has become the program's career leader in tackles for loss with 28 1/2.
For the Knights (6-6), junior Shaquem Griffin, a first-time starter at linebacker after being moved from the secondary, was American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He led the league and was 10th in the FBS in sacks with an average of 0.92 per game (11 total). He had 19 tackles for loss along with an interception and six pass breakups.
"To be Named Defensive Player of the Year is unbelievable," he said. "I couldn't have dreamed of this."
Griffin was just one of four players who keyed the defensive surge that helped the Knights to a six-win improvement after their winless 2015 campaign. His twin brother, senior cornerback Shaquill Griffin, was named second team all-defense along with junior nose guard Jamiyus Pittman. Senior safety Drico Johnson was honorable mention.
Defensive end Chris Odom, offensive tackle Jemar Clark, and defensive back Money Hunter were first-team all-Sun Belt for Arkansas State. The Red Wolves will be without defensive tackle Waylon Roberson because of a knee injury.
The bowl will be a virtual home game for the Knights, who play in Bright House Networks Stadium on campus.
"I think it's wonderful that we get to play right here in the great city of Orlando," first-year coach Scott Frost said. "I think it's going to give us an opportunity to have a lot of fans."
Anderson, whose team won seven of its last eight games to gain at least a share of the Sun Belt title for the fifth time in the last six years, said his players were excited when they learned their destination.
"Great way to finish up a season, back-to-back championships," Anderson said. "To recover from 0-and-4, this is going to be a great opportunity. Big challenge as well."
Sophomore quarterback Justice Hansen leads the Red Wolves offense. He passed for over 209 yards per game with 16 touchdowns in his first year as a starter. Sophomore running back Warren Wand led the rushing with 867 yards.
UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton (200.9 passing yards per game) made nine starts as a true freshman. Running backs Jawon Hamilton, also a true freshman, and Dontravious Wilson rushed for 481 and 463 yards, respectively.