A heartbreaking overtime loss in the Conference USA title game cost UCF a spot in the Liberty Bowl. The consolation prize for the Knights is getting to play a relatively short distance from campus -- albeit against an unexpected opponent that will be looking for its seventh straight victory.
UCF tries to bounce back when it faces Ball State in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Friday night.
The Knights (9-4) led by six going into the fourth quarter against Tulsa on Dec. 1 but allowed a 54-yard punt return for a score that pushed the game to overtime, where the Golden Hurricane prevailed 33-27. UCF had a 38-yard field goal blocked to start the extra period.
"It's very disappointing, to come that far, have it down in overtime, miss the field goal and have them score a touchdown," running back Latavius Murray said. "We didn't come here to lose and we just have to do what we have to do and make sure we win the bowl game."
The Knights may be playing in front of what amounts to a home crowd as they try to do that, as they'll travel only 100 miles to Tropicana Field -- a much closer destination than Memphis, where Tulsa is headed for the Liberty Bowl.
"We are very pleased with the opportunity to go to the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl and the chance to play Ball State who has a 9-3 record," coach George O'Leary told the school's official website. "We're looking forward to the competition as well as the festivities in St. Petersburg."
UCF made its first trip to the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl in 2009, suffering a 45-24 loss to Rutgers. The Knights will play in this game for the final time as a C-USA member as they head to the Big East for next season, but they may be back given the bowl's affiliation with that conference.
The high-scoring Knights, averaging 35.2 points, are led by Blake Bortles, who threw for 2,787 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The bruising Murray has powered the ground game with 1,035 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns, though he failed to reach 100 yards in the last three games after a four-game stretch in which he ran for at least 117 each time.
UCF has five players that have run for at least 162 yards and it has scored 31 touchdowns on the ground -- seven by Bortles.
UCF will be facing something of a mirror image in Ball State, which is averaging only 0.2 fewer points than the Knights. The Cardinals' Keith Wenning has passed for 2,878 yards, 22 TDs and 10 INTs, while sophomore Jahwan Edwards has rushed for 1,321 yards and 14 scores.
Edwards has been particularly effective during Ball State's win streak, averaging 131.0 yards with nine touchdowns in the six games. He ran for three TDs to power the Cardinals past Miami of Ohio 31-24 in their regular-season finale Nov. 23.
Ball State won without Wenning, who suffered an ankle injury while catching a pass against Ohio on Nov. 14. His status for the bowl game is uncertain.
The junior has posted a 143.8 passer rating in his last five contests. The Cardinals also lost Wenning's backup Kelly Page in the third quarter against Miami, leaving freshman Kyle Kamman to make his collegiate debut.
If Wenning and Page can't go, Ball State will likely lean even more heavily on its powerful ground attack, which averages 214.3 yards. Along with Edwards, the Cardinals have Horactio Banks, who's rushed for 585 yards in 10 games.
"I have had the opportunity to look at them on film. It is going to be a great competition and I am looking forward to the challenge," O'Leary said of Ball State.
While Ball State's offense should give it a chance to extend the winning streak, the Cardinals' defense may need to be considerably better than it's been for most of the season. They are allowing 205.8 yards per game on the ground -- near the bottom of the FBS -- and 217.7 through the air, which could prove fatal against the balanced UCF attack.
Ball State opponents are averaging 31.5 points.
"This game against Central Florida is going to be a tremendous challenge for our program, so we are going to have to do a great job in preparation, but we certainly hope to come down here and represent Ball State well," said coach Pete Lembo, whose squad is filling a slot for the Big East, which didn't have enough bowl-eligible teams to fill the league's commitments.
The Cardinals are 0-5 in bowls, with their last appearance coming in the 2008 season, a 45-13 loss to Tulsa in the GMAC Bowl. UCF's last bowl appearance in 2010 yielded its first victory in four overall tries, 10-6 over Georgia in the Liberty Bowl.
UCF has taken two of three meetings with Ball State, the most recent in 2004 when both teams played in the Mid-American Conference. Another victory in the series would enable the Knights to finish with at least 10 wins for the fourth time in history.
Ball State is riding a six-game winning streak into this game and takes an at-large spot created when the Big East could not fill its guaranteed spot. UCF, meanwhile, enters after losing an overtime heartbreaker to Tulsa in the C-USA title game. Ball State is making its first bowl appearance since 2008. This will be the fourth meeting between Ball State and UCF. All three meetings took place while UCF was a member of the MAC from 2002-04.