UCF To the Liberty Bowl: Knights Beat SMU For Conference USA Title
In a year where their offense was usually what made headlines, UCF's defense had the final say on Saturday as the Knights defeated the Southern Methodist Mustangs, 17-7 in the Conference USA Championship game in Orlando.
For UCF, it was their second conference title, and their third time hosting the event. Southern Methodist came up short in their attempt at their first conference title in 26 years.
UCF got the first word in, with Jeffrey Godfrey leading a 13-play, 73-yard drive that ended with a five-yard touchdown reception by sophomore running back Latavius Murray. During the drive, the Mustangs lost their star linebacker Youri Yenga to a groin pull, suffering the injury trying to chase Godfrey.
SMU would suffer a three-and-out on their first drive. As UCF's rushing attack ate the clock, SMU's second drive started at the end of the first quarter. They went 50 yards on nine plays, but Matt Szymanski missed a 47-yard field goal, pushing it wide left.
UCF and SMU grounded the clock down on consecutive drives, with UCF getting the ball back with 1:58 to go in the first half. Using two timeouts, UCF drove 68 yards, ending with Nick Cattoi kicking a 29-yard field goal. The result was a 10-0 UCF halftime lead.
After a failed initial drive by SMU, UCF made the most of their first opportunity with the ball in the second half. After driving 49 yards, Godfrey handed the ball to Murray, who ran it 36 yards for UCF's second touchdown. The extra point gave UCF a 17-0 lead.
On the next SMU drive, Kyle Padron was intercepted by Josh Robinson. The Knights were unable to do anything with it, and punted it back with 13:40 to go in the game.
From that point, Southern Methodist finally got their first shot in. SMU drove the ball 88 yards on 10 plays, finishing with a 22-yard Kyle Padron touchdown pass to Aldrick Robinson.
UCF's offense faltered on their next drive, ending in a punt. But on the third play of SMU's next drive, Padron fired a long bomb which was intercepted by Reggie Wearns. Although the interception was returned 28 yards into SMU territory, UCF was unable to drive the ball much further, and it ended with Nick Cattoi missing a 52-yard field goal.
With 3:41 left to go, SMU attempted to drive to get the game closer. The final desparate drive ended at the UCF 25, with Padron failing on two long pass attempts and a zero-yard rush before getting sacked on fourth down with 10 seconds remaining, sealing the win for the Knights.
Latavius Murray was selected as the game's MVP, with 20 carries for 94 rushing yards and a touchdown, and two catches for 21 yards with a receiving touchdown. Godfrey finished 15-of-19 for 167 yards. Godfrey only has nine incomplete passes over his previous three games.
UCF finished with a plus-two turnover margin on the two interceptions, not turning over the ball themselves.
For SMU, Padron finished 18-of-34 for 220 yards. Running back Zach Line led the team with 18 carries for 94 yards. Darius Johnson led all receivers with nine catches for 105 yards.
UCF head coach George O'Leary leaves the game with a 44-44 record at UCF, finally making up for the 0-11 record in his first season—the Knights' final season in the Mid-American Conference. He is now four wins away from having 100 wins for his career.
UCF (10-3) was later officially invited to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis, where they will face Georgia. SMU (7-6) will play Army at the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas.
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