ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Blake Bortles is just one of the reasons why Central Florida feels good about its chances of being successful in the new-look Big East.
The red-shirt sophomore turned the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl into a personal showcase Friday night, throwing for three touchdowns and running for another to pace a 38-17 victory over Ball State in UCF's final game as a member of Conference USA — a league the Knights won twice in eight seasons.
"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," Ball State coach Pete Lembo said.
"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."
Bortles directed a balanced attack that gained 494 yards total offense. UCF's defense did its part by holding the high-scoring Cardinals to their lowest point total of the season.
"Offensively, this is one of the best games we had all year," Bortles said. "Everyone just really picked up and went, and that's why we won the way we did."
Bortles threw for 271 yards and three touchdowns. The red-shirt sophomore also rushed for a career-high 80 yards and scored on a 6-yard run that helped UCF (10-4) build a 21-point halftime lead.
"I thought Blake did everything he needed to do by making the right decisions," UCF coach George O'Leary said. "Basically, he made the right decisions that moved us down the field. He really showed tonight why he's our guy out there."
Bortles tossed first-half TD passes of 7 and 5 yards to Latavius Murray, who also scored on a 2-yard run. J.J. Worton's 7-yard scoring reception made 35-10 late in the third quarter.
Ball State (9-4) was hoping to finish with at least 10 wins for the third time in school history, however its offense sputtered while being held 18 points below 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 the end zone again until Snead scored on a 16-yard reception with 5 minutes remaining.
Bortles completed 22 of 33 passes without an interception to become UCF's first 3,000-yard passer since 2002. His three TD passes were a career-best and tied the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl record.
Wenning, meanwhile, 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.
The Cardinals were 3 for 9 on third-down conversions and finished with 288 yards, nearly 200 below their season average.
"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."
UCF, one of several schools joining 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.
The Knights' loss to Tulsa in the Conference USA title game kept them close to home for the postseason. Instead of heading to the Liberty Bowl for the second time in three years, coach George O'Leary and his players settled for a 100-mile trek west from Orlando to Tropicana Field, the home of Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays.
O'Leary also brought his team to St. Petersburg in 2009, losing to Rutgers by three touchdowns. Friday night's victory improved the 66-year-old coach's record to 4-5 in bowl games, including a 2-3 mark with UCF.
Ball State's first bowl appearance since 2008 is the latest step in an impressive turnaround under Lembo, whose team suffered early losses to Clemson, Kent State and Northern Illinois before winning six straight down the stretch to put themselves into a position 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.
"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," Ball State 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."