The UCF Knights will try to exit Conference USA with the league crown as they take on the Tulsa Golden Hurricane in the 2012 Conference USA Championship game at H.A. Chapman Stadium on Saturday.
UCF is one of a handful of schools that will be migrating to the Big East following the season. The Knights were banned from bowl participation in August due to recruiting violations. The school elected to appeal the ruling, which made the team eligible until an official ruling on the appeal was decided by the NCAA. During the regular season, it was announced the appeal will not be fully reviewed until next season
Coach George O'Leary's squad may not be eligible for next year's bowl season as a member of an automatic qualifying BCS conference, but it remained relevant for 2012. UCF experienced losses to Ohio State (31-16) and Missouri (21-16) before kicking off its C-USA slate. The tough non-conference schedule paid off as it then went on a six-game winning streak once entering league action and still finished 9-3 overall with just one setback in conference play. The only team to beat UCF in the regular season from the league was its title game opponent.
Tulsa finished the season with an identical overall and conference record to its opponent. The Golden Hurricane opened up their season with a loss at Iowa State and fell in a late non-conference bout at Arkansas, but they pushed through their league schedule to build a 9-2 record going into last week's regular-season finale. However, Tulsa was finally taken down by a league rival as the desperate SMU Mustangs handed them a 35-27 loss to secure bowl eligibility. Coach Bill Blankenship's team still maintained the hosting rights to the championship game despite the loss.
This will be the seventh collision between these schools on the gridiron. Tulsa increased its lead in the all-time series to 4-2 with its 23-21 decision over UCF on Nov. 17. The Golden Hurricane limited UCF to 235 yards of total offense and two TDs in the contest.The Knights are excited for a chance at revenge.
"It is in the back of your mind. That's why we had to win that last game because we wanted to get back out there and have another shot at Tulsa," Senior captain and offensive lineman Jordan Rae said. "Our goal is still in front of us and that's to win the conference championship and that's what we're working for this week."
UCF does not rack up a jaw-dropping amount of yards on a regular basis and finished the regular season ranked just seventh in the league with 406.5 yards of total offense per game, but it has been much more efficient, which has led to second-best scoring offense in the league at 35.2 ppg.
In his first full season as a starter, Blake Bortles has played well, completing 64.4 percent of his passes for 2,593 yards, 20 touchdowns, and just seven interceptions. However, he, along with the rest of the Knights' offense, struggled against Tulsa, completing just 13-of-31 pass attempts.
Few running backs in the country have had better per-game numbers than Latavius Murray. Despite missing three games in September, Murray has racked up 964 yards rushing, 179 yards receiving, and 15 total touchdowns. The senior tailback has a pair of serviceable backups in Storm Johnson and Brynn Harvey as well.
Bortles spreads the wealth among several receivers. Four players have at least 340 receiving yards, paced by J.J. Worton (40 receptions, 555 yards, four TDs). Senior Quincy McDuffie has made an impact as a wideout (27 receptions, 342 yards), but he also returned three kickoffs for scores this year and added three rushing touchdowns in the regular-season finale versus UAB.
UCF is in position to earn a conference championship thanks in large part to its stout defense, which ranks first in the league in scoring defense (21.6) and second in yards allowed (374.9).
The unit has forced 24 turnovers, led by six from Kemal Ishmael (three INTs, three fumble recoveries). In addition to being one of the top defensive playmakers in the league, the senior defensive back is also the team leader in tackles (102). If that remains the same he will become the third player in UCF history and the first since 1992 to lead the team in tackles in three straight seasons since 1992. Cornerback A.J. Bouye is also a big-time playmaker with three INTs to his credit, including one versus Tulsa which he returned 76 yards for a score.
Tulsa is one of the few teams in the C-USA that relies on its rushing attack for production. It is hard to argue with the results as the Golden Hurricane rank 12th in the FBS in rushing offense (236.1 ypg) and third in the conference in scoring offense (35.2ppg). The team racked up 461 yards of total offense including 209 rushing yards two weeks ago versus UCF, which came into the contest with averages of just 343.9 total yards and 152.3 rushing yards per contest.
Tulsa's smash-mouth style features a stable of talented rushers, whose different styles continuously keep opposing defenses guessing. Ja'Terian Douglas (837 yards, six TDs) and Trey Watts (825 yards, three TDs) have both shown off speed, vision, and elusiveness when handed the ball to kick the offense into higher gear. Alex Singleton (162 carries, 665 yards) is not as explosive as his co-workers in the backfield, but his bruising rushing style has yielded 19 rushing touchdowns and an average of 10 points scored per game.
With a run-first offense, Cody Green accepted the role of game manager for the majority of the season. However, the junior QB has evolved into more of a threat. His head coach weighed in on the progress.
"He's not as accurate as I want him to be or think he should be," said Blankenship. "But the thing he does is that he sees the field. He sees the field better than some guys that have better percentages. Because of that vision ... (it can result) in a big play. He just has some instinct about him that is pretty good. We're not in calculus. We're in algebra. But I mean he's moving into calculus as a quarterback. He gets it."
Over his last two games, Green has completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 665 yards, six touchdowns, and two interceptions. The strong finish brought his season totals to 2,346 yards, 16 TDs, and nine INTs.
Sophomore wideout Keyarris Garrett made three touchdown receptions versus the Knights to go along with a career-high 130 yards. He then added 90 yards and another score in the regular-season finale to boost his totals to 778 yards and nine TDs on 60 receptions.
The Tulsa defensive unit is ranked right behind UCF in the C-USA rankings in scoring defense (23.9 ppg), but it is first total defense (355.9 ypg). The unit has made big plays in the backfield consistently with 98 tackles for loss, 45 sacks, and 23 total takeaways.
DeAundre Brown has been one of the best linebackers in the country, filling up the stat sheet with 116 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks, and an interception. Senior DL Jared St. John is the team's leader with 9.5 sacks and Dexter McCoil will be looking to add to his team-best total of four interceptions.