GLENDALE, Ariz. – It was the culmination of a season of nay-sayers, non-believers and the uphill battle. For the third time this season, No. 16 UCF was able to win a game far from home, in an unfamiliar stadium against an opponent that was believed to be superior.
The Knights upset the No. 6 ranked Baylor Bears on Wednesday night with authority, dispatching the nation’s most deadly offense 52-42 in the highest scoring game in Fiesta Bowl history.
This win was a long time in the making, going back years to the instillation of Coach O’Leary’s culture.
“It’s a we thing,” O’Leary is known for saying, “not a me thing.”
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The statement speaks volumes to the character of his players. Fiesta Bowl MVP Blake Bortles was one of many UCF starters that wasn’t the most highly praised recruit coming out of high school, and it has done wonders for the chemistry of this team.
“We came in together. We’re all within one year of each other,” Bortles said. “We came to UCF on a mission.”
This is a team that has learned to act as one, pulling out close victories and upsets all year by playing with a short memory and no ego.
In the Lousiville game the Knights had fallen behind 28-7 in the third quarter before mounting a comeback for the ages, taking the lead late in the fourth quarter.
In Happy Valley they went into one of the fiercest, most iconic environments in college football – and didn’t bat an eye.
“I think they had a resiliency about them. Something you really can’t coach,” O’Leary said.
Indeed, the path to victory tonight had more than its share of roadblocks. Early in the second quarter Bortles slipped for the first time in the game by throwing an interception on a deep pass attempt to the end zone.
The defense came back and set the tone, stuffing Baylor to force a three-and-out. Upon getting the ball back, Bortles promptly turned it right back over, throwing an interception at his own 32 yard line. The takeaway led to a Baylor touchdown and a slim one point lead.
Before the offense could make any progress at all, Storm Johnson fumbled on the 23 yard line, setting Baylor up to take a lead and command the momentum. The air had been punched out of UCF fans, and the mood somber. It was a defining moment for the Knights. If Baylor takes the lead, the offense has the potential to get rolling and put the victory out of reach for UCF.
Bryce Petty, the Baylor quarterback who had scored 41 touchdowns during the regular season while only throwing two interceptions, had his team poised to take the lead. Brandon Alexander had other plans, stepping in front of the pass and intercepting Petty in the middle of the end zone.
The turnover was exactly what the offense needed to get back into the game.
“The offense feeds off the defense, and the defense feeds off the offense,” said O’Leary. Rather than let Baylor take command of the game’s pace, the Knights responded with a takeaway of their own, and went on to extend their lead with an explosive 50 yard touchdown.
Not until the third quarter was Baylor able to eliminate the UCF lead, tying the game at 28 with a seven play drive that kept a busy UCF defense on the field longer than they would have liked. The stalemate didn’t last very long, as the Knights moved ahead with their next drive and never looked back, playing from in front for the entirety of the game.
“Offensively we changed tempo a little bit,” O’Leary said, “went to some fast ball ourselves, which helped us.”
Headed into the matchup, it was perceived that the middling UCF offense would not be able to keep up with a juggernaut like the Bears, who had been putting up 53 points a game. At the end of the night the Knights not only kept up with Baylor’s offensive production, but outgained them 556-550 in total yards. The 52 points were the most scored in program history against a ranked opponent.
The strength of the Knights does not come from a gimmicky system or a solo star, it comes from their never say die attitude and ability to be coached.
In front of a national audience on the worldwide leader in sports, UCF put a stamp on their iconic season with a victory that nobody could diminish. A 17 point underdog at kickoff, it never looked like the Knights were overmatched.
They belonged at the pinnacle, far beyond what was expected of them.
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