For all Ball State's accomplished in an impressive two-year turnaround under coach Pete Lembo, the Cardinals still don't have a bowl victory.
Blake Bortles threw for three touchdowns and ran for another Saturday to lead Central Florida to a 38-17 victory in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl on Friday night.
Ball State (9-4) fell to 0-7-1 in bowl appearances, although just getting this far in such a short time with Lembo's guidance gives the Cardinals plenty of hope for the future.
"Clemson had some outstanding athletes, and I don't think these guys are very far off, starting with the quarterback," Lembo said about UCF, which amassed 494 yards total offense while holding the high-scoring Cardinals to their lowest point total of the season.
Bortles threw first-half TD passes of 7 and 5 yards to Latavius Murray, who also scored on a 2-yard run to help the Knights (10-4) build a 21-point halftime lead and coast to victory in their final game as a member of Conference USA.
Bortles had a 6-yard TD run and threw for 272 yards to become the Knights' first 3,000-yard passer since 2002. He also led UCF in rushing with a career-best 80 yards on nine carries.
"He's an outstanding player, and he scared me ... coming in with his feet and his ability to escape in the pocket and keep his eyes down the field and make plays," Lembo said of the red-shirt sophomore.
"He did that basically from the beginning of the game until the end when he came out," Lembo added. "I can't believe that this guy's not going to be a pro prospect if he continues to develop the way he has. So I'm very, very impressed with him and obviously the supporting cast."
Ball State (9-4) was hoping to finish with at least 10 wins for the third time in school history, however its high-powered offense sputtered while being held 18 points its season average. Keith Wenning threw a 7-yard TD pass to Willie Snead early in the second quarter, but the Cardinals didn't get into end zone again until Snead scored on a 16-yard reception with 5 minutes remaining.
Lembo noted his team was 3 of 9 on third-down conversions while being held to 288 yards, nearly 200 below what Ball State averaged during the regular season.
"Obviously, to stay on the field on third down is critical, and (there is) very little margin for error for our offense," Lembo said. "It wasn't a horrible day offensively by any means, but not quite to the degree we needed to stay in the game."
Bortles completed 22 of 33 passes without an interception, and his three TD passes were a career-best and tied the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl record. Wenning was 22 of 34 for 217 yards and two TDs for Ball State, which had a six-game winning streak snapped before an announced crowd of 21,759.
UCF, which will move into the Big East next season, rebounded from an overtime loss in the Conference USA title game to finish with double-digit victories for the third time since stepping up to the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Knights also won 10 in 2007 and 2010, when they were Conference USA champions.
Ball State's first bowl appearance since 2008 is the latest step in a turnaround under Lembo, whose team suffered early losses to Clemson, Kent State and Northern Illinois before winning six straight to put themselves into a position to be selected to fill the Big East's slot in the Beef 'O' Brady's game because the league didn't have enough bowl-eligible teams to meet its commitment.
The Cardinals beat two teams from BCS conferences in the same season for the first time, defeating Indiana and South Florida in consecutive weeks. They had the MAC's second-most productive offense at 471.3 yards and 35 points per game and won four times by scoring the winning points in the final 2 minutes or overtime.
Jahwan Edwards rushed for 89 yards on 14 carries for Ball State, earning the most valuable player award for the losing team. Snead had seven receptions for 78 yards.
"It's not the way you kind of desire to go out as a senior, but I'm proud of my teammates for even getting us to the point," Cardinals linebacker Travis Freeman said. "The guys worked hard and trained hard all year round for this opportunity. We didn't seize it, but I'm proud of my teammates for what they've done."