Dallas, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - The top team in the American Athletic Conference aims to close out the regular season on a positive note, as the 15th-ranked UCF Knights go up against the SMU Mustangs at Ford Stadium on Saturday.
Last week, the Knights ran their win streak to seven in a row with a narrow 23-20 victory over in-state rival South Florida. Thanks to a perfect conference mark of 7-0, UCF has already earned at least a share of the first- ever AAC Championship, but a win this weekend would put the Knights into a BCS game for the first time in program history.
Actually, the Knights have a chance to lock up a BCS appearance as early as Thursday if the Louisville Cardinals take down the Cincinnati Bearcats, but UCF is intent of controlling its own destiny.
"Our concern is SMU and winning the game. That's why we're playing," said UCF head coach George O'Leary. "Thursday could be great for us or it doesn't change anything. We have to win the game Saturday and that's how we're looking at it."
As for the Mustangs, they had a chance to make themselves bowl eligible last weekend for the fifth straight year, but the team was stopped in its tracks by the Houston Cougars in a 34-0 shutout. Not only did the decision snap a brief two-game win streak for SMU, it also marked the first time since 2004 that the team was held scoreless.
"Not good, a lot of things to work on," noted SMU's freshman quarterback Neal Burcham after his first start, "I'm always very critical of myself, and I have to do better."
As far as the all-time series is concerned, the Knights have taken four of the previous five meetings with SMU, including a 42-17 triumph in the most recent matchup last season at home.
Blake Bortles threw a 52-yard TD pass to Breshad Perriman with under five minutes remaining in regulation to put the Knights on top by three against USF last week, but it was an interception by Jordan Ozerities with just over a minute to play that sealed the win for UCF.
Bortles had his struggles as he converted 17-of-26 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns, suffering three sacks and a pair of interceptions, yet his performance was still just enough to get the team over the hump. Because of the sacks, UCF finished with a net of only 77 rushing yards.
Keeping the team in contention the entire way was kicker Shawn Moffitt who knocked through all three of his field goal chances, rescuing a stalled UCF offense numerous times. Moffitt, a perfect 40-of-40 on PATs, has made all but one of his 20 field goal attempts this season.
When not calling on Moffitt to save the day, the UCF offense is riding the arm of Bortles who has converted an impressive 68.0 percent of his passes for 276.2 ypg and a total of 22 touchdowns, against just seven INTs. Second on the team with 36 catches, J.J. Worton has turned those opportunities into 617 yards and a team-best seven TDs.
Needing just 22 yards to reach 1,000 for the campaign, Storm Johnson takes the lead in the rushing game for the Knights with his 5.4 yards per attempt and 11 TDs.
Hard to believe that the SMU offense came up empty against the Cougars last week, even as the unit ran 86 plays, 14 more than Houston. It certainly didn't hurt the Mustangs that they were flagged 10 times for 90 yards either, but there was more to the loss than just penalties.
The team was operating without quarterback Garrett Gilbert who was forced to the sidelines with a knee injury and is again listed as questionable for the final regular-season game as well. In his place, Burcham converted 27-of-52 passes for 212 yards, but he was sacked five times and tossed three interceptions.
Darius Joseph tallied a game-high nine catches for 52 yards and Jeremy Johnson turned his eight grabs into 75 yards, but because Burcham was taken down in the backfield so many times, the Mustangs were left with just 83 net rushing yards.
"We just didn't execute on both sides of the ball," linebacker/running back Kevin Pope said of the defeat at Houston. "We'll go back to the drawing board, and get it together. We'll come together as a team, keep our heads up, and we'll be fine."
The SMU passing offense currently ranks seventh in the nation with 351.1 ypg, but if Gilbert is not ready to go again then throwing Burcham into the fire is the only option. Unfortunately, the rushing attack for the team really can't help all that much as it averages a mere 95.2 ypg (116th), but that's long been the case with teams coached by June Jones.