ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- Central Florida junior Kevin Smith has run
through 13 teams for 2,448 yards this season. Now all that stands
in his way is a Hall of Fame rusher who hasn't played college ball
in 19 years.
Smith had 284 yards and four touchdowns on Saturday as Central
Florida beat Tulsa 44-25 for the Conference USA championship. He
moved into second place behind Barry Sanders on the NCAA's
single-season rushing list, and still has one game left, UCF's Dec.
29 Liberty Bowl appearance.
As he had all year, the 6-foot-1, 211-pound junior downplayed
his gaudy numbers.
"I'm expected to be back there and make the right cut at the
right time," Smith said. "You can't run up the sideline without a
hole. My guys gave it to me, and I tried not to let them down."
Then, perhaps his biggest understatement: "Coach gives me the
ball a lot."
Smith on Saturday also set the NCAA all-time single-season
record in season rushing attempts with 415, 12 more than Marcus
Allen had at USC in 1981. Allen had been ahead of Smith in season
rushing yardage, but the junior passed him with a six-yard carry in
the third quarter. Smith had 24 carries for 161 yards at halftime,
and piled up even more with a 74-yard TD run in the fourth quarter.
"I have coached in the BCS, and I can guarantee you that he is
as good as anybody in the country," Tulsa coach Todd Graham said.
"No question about it."
It was the second time in three years the teams played for the
conference championship. Tulsa (9-4, 6-3) won in 2005, but the
Golden Hurricane's star quarterback Paul Smith made too many
mistakes this time.
Paul Smith passed for 426 yards, his third 400-yard game this
season, on 28 of 55 completions, but threw three interceptions. Two
were in the second half, and each one happened inside or near the
"They play as well as anyone we've played -- physicality, speed,
strength," Paul Smith said.
UCF led 31-23 at halftime, but couldn't stop Paul Smith early.
The Golden Hurricane, the country's top offense with 548 yards a
game, rolled up 376 yards and 13 first downs. The Knights let Smith
slip out of several third-and-long situations with long completions
over the middle, including a 29-yarder to Trae Johnson on
third-and-12 that set up Tulsa's first score.
But the Knights clamped down in the second half, pressuring
Smith into Tulsa's third-worst offensive outing of the season. UCF
used the same blueprint when the teams met in the regular season,
picking off four Smith passes in a 44-23 win.
"A lot of it is they've got some really, really explosive guys
up front, and I think that's the key to their defense," Graham
Down 37-23, Tulsa stayed alive when Paul Smith found Brennan
Marion for a 33-yard completion on fourth down to the Knights'
3-yard-line. Despite four chances at point-blank rage, Tulsa
couldn't score until it turned the ball over on downs and tackled
UCF QB Kyle Israel for a safety.
Knights coach George O'Leary saved a touchdown in the second
quarter after Paul Smith ran in an eight-yard draw. The Golden
Hurricane lined up for the extra point, but O'Leary challenged,
saying Tulsa had 12 players on the field. The review showed he was
correct, and Tulsa came away without any points when Smith was
intercepted by Johnell Neal at the 5-yard-line.
Cornerback Joe Burnett scored UCF's first TD on an 83-yard punt
return. It was the school's first since the conference title game
last year, when he ran one back 68 yards.
The real offense was coming from the Smiths. Tulsa's senior Paul
turned in his 13th straight 300-yard game after never having one
before this year.
Kevin Smith's four touchdowns gave him 30 on the season,
fourth-best in history behind Sanders (39), Boise State's Brock
Forsey (32) and Louisiana Tech's Troy Edwards (31).
Smith is now 180 yards behind Sanders, and averages 188 a game.
After getting little recognition, the chase and Smith's nationally
televised performance might nudge Heisman Trophy voters who held
onto their ballots to push him higher.
"Kevin's been special every game, I think from the first to the
twelfth, and hopefully people recognize that," O'Leary said. "I
think this game went out over the nation, and they saw a guy that
comes out and plays like he's supposed to play."