In the week leading up to UCF’s matchup against No. 6 Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, head coach George O’Leary bristled when asked how he knows his team isn’t just happy to be in its first-ever BCS bowl.
This was Baylor’s first BCS bowl as well, he reminded his questioner. His Knights, just like the Bears, entered the game Wednesday at 11-1 and champions of an automatic-qualifying conference.
Who knows if the No. 15 Knights were overlooked entering the game, but they certainly won’t be anymore. Not after a 52-42 upset victory over the high-octane Bears in front of 65,172 at University of Phoenix Stadium.
“A win like today I think is great because it’s national exposure,” O’Leary said. “It’s great for the program, it’s great for the players, it’s great for the school, just the notoriety you get. I don’t think you can buy that marketing from anywhere.”
UCF has certainly come a long way in O’Leary’s 10 years at the helm. The Knights went 0-11 in O’Leary’s debut season in 2004. A decade later, they’ve registered 12 wins for the first time in school history. All three of UCF’s bowl wins have come under his tenure, as have all three of their wins over ranked opponents.
He did it with a group of players that were overlooked just as much as the program has been since it began playing football in 1979. Now two players – quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson – could wind up as high-round picks should they declare for the NFL draft.
“We weren’t highly touted guys coming out of high school,” Bortles said. “We came to UCF on a mission.”
Standing in the way of that mission was Baylor, a squad that set new NCAA records for total yards and scoring in a 13-game season. Sure, the Knights had a top-20 defense, but how would they stop the top-ranked Bears, especially with an interim defensive coordinator running the show?
The answer, apparently, was to just keep up with Baylor in the first place. UCF recorded 556 yards of offense to Baylor’s 550. The Bears are known for being able to score from anywhere on the field, but it was UCF that had touchdowns of 50, 34 and 40 yards.
In other areas, the Knights were clearly superior. UCF’s wide receivers put on a clinic with downfield blocking while Baylor, perhaps struggling with an unusually moist field, had significant issues tackling in open space.
Most damning for the Bears were their 17 penalties for 135 yards, compared to just four for 40 yards by the Knights.
“I don’t know many ball clubs that can win with 17 penalties in one game,” Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon said. “With a good team like that, I mean, what happened tonight is going to happen to you if you have 17 penalties.”
The game had the feel of a back-and-forth affair, although UCF never actually trailed. The Knights took an early 14-0 lead – throwing the ball just once on its first two drives – before the Bears could kick it into gear. Baylor twice cut the lead to one and tied the game at 28-28 early in the second half, but UCF always had an answer.
UCF didn’t play perfectly, though, and early on gave Baylor plenty of chances to take command. After cutting through the Bears defense like butter to start the game, the Knights punted three times in a row and then turned the ball over on a trio of drives, never advancing past the Baylor 47.
Of those three turnovers – two of which were Bortles interceptions – two came in UCF territory. The last of the three, a Johnson fumble, handed the Bears the ball at the Knights’ 19 with UCF nursing a 14-13 lead.
But instead of crumbling, the UCF defense forced Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty into just his third interception of the year. In response, Bortles led his offense on an 80-yard scoring drive to cap what could have been a 15-point swing.
Bortles earned Offensive MVP honors, passing for 301 yards and three scores and running for a season-high 93 yards and another touchdown. Linebacker Terrance Plummer earned defensive honors with a game-high 14 tackles. Johnson added 124 yards and three scores on the ground, and wide receiver Rannell Hall went off for 113 yards and two touchdowns on four catches.
Having completed a goal that seemed unthinkable at the beginning of his tenure, O’Leary seemed almost subdued in his celebration. There was no Gatorade shower from his players, and he seemed eager to start working on next season.
He’ll lose only seven seniors, although Bortles and Johnson could be early departures. Whoever returns, the expectations certainly won’t be the same.
“You never remain the same,” O’Leary said. “You either get better or worse in football. Right away we get back. School starts on Monday the sixth. We’ll be in the weight room on Monday. There’s no time off.”