Heading into the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, there were many who questioned whether Central Florida even deserved a BCS bowl berth. The representative of the American Athletic Conference—easily the weakest conference represented in this year's games—the Knights' high-powered offense was bound to be exposed against a "real" team.
Quarterback Blake Bortles and Co. worked from the opening snap to smash all those assumptions.
Bortles accounted for four total touchdowns, running back Storm Johnson rushed for three more and the UCF defense held Baylor's vaunted offense just enough times to pull off a 52-42 victory at University of Phoenix Stadium on New Year's Day.
The win is unquestionably the biggest in program history. An FCS school as recently as 1995, the program George O'Leary took over in 2004 was in shambles. The Knights went 0-11 in his first season. A decade and two conference switches later, O'Leary has built UCF into a possible sleeping giant.
Not that anyone believed in this team coming into the Fiesta Bowl. Facing a Baylor team that led the nation at 53.3 points per game, the expectation was the Bears would wipe the floor with the upstart but overmatched program.
Once the game began, though, it was clear just how much everyone had underestimated the Knights. Within the first seven-plus minutes of the first quarter, Johnson had scored two touchdowns to give UCF a 14-0 lead that set the tone of the entire contest. Although Baylor would work its way back into the game, getting within a single point in the first half and tying the game at 28 in the third quarter, the Bears were constantly scrambling just to stay in the game.
The defense that had allowed more than 20 points just four times all season became a sieve and the offense that topped 70 four times had to scramble late just to get half of that.
Quarterback Bryce Petty finished with 356 yards and two touchdowns, but he rarely resembled the Heisman Trophy contender from the regular season. The junior signal-caller struggled locating the ball and couldn't create any positive headway as UCF was pulling away late.
But more than anything, Art Briles' team just looked totally unprepared following the lengthy layoff. Five of the Bears' first six drives ended in a punt or turnover on downs, the offense becoming a series of mistimed throws, botched snaps and sloppy play. The Bears committed 17 penalties, giving away 135 yards that helped offset the 550 yards worth of success their offense did have.
Baylor's sloppiness not only helped UCF get comfortable on the big stage, it also helped atone for mistakes that could have crippled the Knights.
After running out to the 14-0 lead, UCF allowed Baylor back into the game with three costly turnovers on consecutive possessions. Bortles threw two straight interceptions and Johnson fumbled once, as Baylor turned that two-touchdown deficit into being down just 14-13 following a Petty touchdown pass to Levi Norwood with 8:01 left in the second quarter.
With more hype surrounding his name than ever before, though, Bortles was able to block out the mistakes and get back to work. The junior quarterback finished with 301 yards and three touchdowns with the two picks, highlighted by a 10-yard strike to Breshad Perriman that gave the Knights a 35-28 lead in the third quarter they would not relinquish.
Bortles also used the national stage as a showcase for his athleticism. After rushing for only 179 yards in the first 12 games of the season, Bortles scampered for 93 alone on Wednesday night. His 15-yard touchdown run with 13:37 remaining in the fourth put his team up two touchdowns, giving them the necessary cushion to start draining time.
That responsibility went to Johnson, who finished with 124 yards on 20 carries. Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk nearly matched him every step of the way with 117 yards, but UCF did a solid job of swallowing up the running game otherwise.
Baylor came in expected to dominate with its two-way attack. As the Fiesta Bowl proved, though, perception is not always reality.
Bryce Petty (QB, Baylor): B
Like just about everyone in this contest, Petty didn't have a perfect game. He threw an interception for just the third time all season, looked noticeably flustered early on and suffered multiple timing mistakes with receivers.
Whether a receiver runs the wrong route or the quarterback throws to the incorrect place is always the subject to debate—almost always depending on whether the quarterback or wide receiver is speaking. But it was jarring to see Baylor, arguably the most efficient and well-oiled offense in the nation, look merely mortal.
The Bears and Petty righted the ship in some spots like we knew they would, but Baylor can thank some major UCF mistakes for even keeping them in the game in the first half. But we're grading individuals here, not teams or perceptions.
The reality is that Petty still scored five touchdowns. That's not a bad night of football. And one of those touchdowns was this:
So, yes, "B" sounds right.
Lache Seastrunk (RB, Baylor): B
Seastrunk hasn't made an official decision on whether he'll return to Waco for his senior season, but this was a pretty darn good way to go out if he's declaring for the draft. The Baylor back picked up his seventh 100-yard game of the season on Wednesday, all of which came on fewer than 20 carries.
More importantly, this was an excellent reminder of just how good Seastrunk can be when he's healthy. While he was in the lineup for the last two games of the season, Seastrunk was obviously still working his way back from the groin injury that cost him the better part of three contests.
He didn't break off any 80-yard scampers or anything, but the performance was impressive because nearly every run produced a positive result for Baylor. Petty's ability to find space on his designed runs came as a result of the UCF defense being afraid to crash and give Seastrunk room to roam.
Based on the short shelf-life of running backs, I'm leaving if I'm Seastrunk. He'd arguably be the best player at his position, a borderline first-round or second-round choice. Either way, it's been fun watching Seastrunk excel in Waco.
Blake Bortles (QB, UCF): B
If you were looking to tune in to the Fiesta Bowl and decide whether Bortles' top-five hype was legit or ridiculous, well, sorry about that. Bortles gave everyone a bit of everything.
For those on the Bortles bandwagon, there was plenty to like. He came out and flashed his athleticism, keeping the ball on designed runs and buying himself extra time in the pocket on blitzes. The arm strength was also there, as Bortles threw strikes on out routes and flung the ball impressively down the field a few times. All of the physical tools in the book, this kid has them.
For those on the Bortles bust bandwagon, though, you don't have to look hard for nits to pick. The criticism about Bortles isn't that he lacks physical tools—it's that he lacks experience against elite competition and has a propensity for making poor decisions. Both of those traits were on display Wednesday. He started the game wildly inaccurate, threw two interceptions and made a couple "raw talent" mistakes.
Overall, though, this was a solid enough national introduction for the Bortles experience. Now to see whether he'll be taking his talent to Sundays.
Storm Johnson (RB, UCF): A-
On top of making me jealous my parents didn't name me Storm, Johnson had quite the coming out party himself. The powerful back scored the game's first two touchdowns and was sensational in short yardage when the Knights were trying keep their lead.
Bortles gets most of the attention for this offense, and rightfully so. But Johnson deserves more credit for the integral role he plays making the high-powered unit hum.
Unfortunately, his quarterback was again good enough to make him a supporting player. Assuming Bortles takes advantage of his soaring draft stock, though, Johnson could be a force to be reckoned with as a featured player in 2014.
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