GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Earlier this week, UCF running back Storm Johnson was asked if there was room in the state of Florida for a college football “Big Four.” Johnson offered a one-word answer -- “yes” -- and didn’t expand any further. Following a 52-42 victory over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, however, the Knights have certainly made their case.
UCF quarterback Blake Bortles went 20-of-31 for 301 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions in Wednesday night's triumph. He also added 93 rushing yards and a score on eight carries.
Bortles has come under the microscope a lot recently, as his NFL draft stock has become the subject of national speculation. Knights head coach George O’Leary deflected questions about his quarterback’s future ad nauseam in the days leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, but Bortles' numbers speak for themselves. He finished his junior campaign with 3,581 passing yards and 25 touchdowns; he was able to run if needed, too, a skill he demonstrated with his zone read play against the Baylor defense.
He boasts the size and strength NFL scouts salivate over, but he's also prone to making poor decisions -- and the Fiesta Bowl proved no exception. Bortles put UCF ahead 35-28 on a pretty 10-yard strike to Breshad Perriman midway through the third quarter, but he also uncorked a pair of ugly picks. No matter what he ultimately decides, he's already left his imprint on the program.
“Building chemistry on and off the field is what we strive on,” Bortles said. “Hopefully that will be my legacy at the end."
Baylor entered this game as the heavy favorite, but it stumbled out of the gate. The only other time the Bears trailed at the end of the first half this season was at Oklahoma State on Nov. 23 -- the Bears’ lone loss coming into the Fiesta Bowl. The Cowboys ran the ball 46 times in that 49-17 rout, wearing down the Baylor defense and making each offensive possession that much more critical. Against the Knights, the same script came into play.
During his ESPN interview at the half, Baylor coach Art Briles said his team “just needed to play cleaner and smoother.” Penalties and missed tackles plagued the Bears all night, and they dug into a hole from which they weren’t able to emerge.
If the Bears aren’t scoring, players look around for answers, as if a remote control isn’t working and there are no extra batteries in the house. The easy solution is to get up and change the channel, but athletes are often creatures of habit. When challenged with a threat to their routine, Baylor's players seemed to lose their rhythm.
“It’s very frustrating,” Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon said afterward. “Not just speaking for our defense, but as a team as a whole. That’s very frustrating to have as many penalties as we had. We had 17. I don’t know very many ball clubs that can win with 17 penalties in one game. With a good team like that, I mean, what happened tonight is going to happen to you.”
UCF turned the ball over on three consecutive offensive plays (back-to-back interceptions by Bortles and a fumble by Johnson) in the first half, and the door was open for Baylor to seize control.
It couldn't take advantage. A costly interception by Bears quarterback Bryce Petty in the red zone -- only his third of the season -- and a subsequent 50-yard touchdown pass from Bortles to Rannell Hall gave UCF a 21-13 lead. Later, Petty front-flipped into the end zone, and Baylor sliced the deficit to 21-20. The Knights responded with another long Hall touchdown, though, thanks to some impressive blocking from redshirt junior wide receiver Josh Reese.
On Dec. 31, O’Leary emphasized the importance of having “we guys” -- not "me guys" -- and Reese is a fine example of that. He had just four total receptions in the final four games of the regular season, and he didn’t record a catch against Baylor. It would’ve been very easy for him to disengage on blocks or become disinterested, but he kept fighting and allowed Hall to make his move.
“I always said you want us to throw you the ball you’ve got to be able to block,” O’Leary said. “Any time you see chunk plays in the run game, you usually have a receiver corps that’s blocking well downfield. I thought they did a great job of getting hands on people, they were on their feet. I thought the runners did a good job of utilizing them downfield as far as blockers were concerned.”
The second half brought more of the same. Baylor tied the score at 28 on Petty’s third rushing touchdown with 10:38 remaining in the third quarter, but a barrage of pass interference penalties put the Bears in a corner. They tried to claw their way out, but trailing by two scores with more than nine minutes to play, UCF generated a key defensive stop and was able to bleed the clock and seal the win.
O’Leary will get plenty of credit for building UCF to where it is today. To some extent, he deserves it. But that doesn’t overshadow some of the things that happened along the way.
The death of Ereck Plancher -- to which a former player testified O’Leary was “yelling obscenities” at Plancher after he collapsed during practice on March 18, 2008 -- immediately comes to mind. O’Leary’s comments that players today are soft and “it comes from too much parental babying” don’t sit quite right. That UCF had to win an appeal on a potential postseason ban after it was revealed former athletic director Keith Tribble and wide receivers coach David Kelly committed recruiting violations shouldn’t be forgotten. The bad and the ugly can’t be ignored when the good comes along. This isn’t the world of Machiavelli where the ends automatically justify the means.
All that noted, however, it was the “we guys” who got the Knights to 12-1 and clinched the school's first-ever BCS win. They’re the reason UCF has a case for the Big Three in Florida expanding into a Big Four. And in the new-look College Football Playoff system, the "we guys" might be UCF's best chance to remain in the national conversation for years to come. Said O'Leary: "I've always deflected everything to the players. You know, players win football games. Coaches just get them in the right direction."