St. Petersburg, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - The Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl is the nightcap on the day after Christmas, as the NC State Wolfpack tangle with the Knights of UCF at Tropicana Field.
NC State went 7-5 during the regular season, which included a 3-5 record in the ACC, giving the team a fifth-place finish in the Atlantic Division. A four-game losing streak from Sept. 27-Oct. 18 had the Wolfpack in a precarious position as far as bowl consideration was concerned. But coach Dave Doeren's club responded to win three of its last four games, including the final two over Wake Forest (42-13) and North Carolina (35-7).
The Wolfpack have appeared in 27 bowl games in their history, going 14-12-1, They missed out on last year's postseason, snapping a three-year run. This is the 10th time NCSU has been invited to a bowl since 2000, and it is the team's 10th bowl game all-time in the state of Florida.
Speaking of the Sunshine State, UCF had long taken a backseat to bigger brothers, Florida State, Florida and Miami with regard to notoriety in the state, but things have been on the upswing for the Knights recently. In fact, since 2012, UCF has won 31 games, which is tied for the seventh-most in the FBS. Coach George O'Leary's squad went 9-3 this season, and finished with a 7-1 ledger in the American Athletic Conference, which tied both Cincinnati and UCF for the top spot. Since the formation of the AAC prior to last season, the Knights are an astounding 15-1 against league foes.
UCF's first bowl appearance was in 2005, and it lost its first three postseason ventures before finally getting into the win column with a 10-6 triumph over Georgia in the 2010 Liberty Bowl. Last season, the Knights reached a BCS bowl for the first time in history, as they outlasted Baylor in a wild Fiesta Bowl, 52-42. This is UCF's third trip to Tropicana Field in Tampa for a bowl game, with the last time being in 2012 against Ball State, a game in which the Knights prevailed in a 38-17 final.
This game, which came in to existence in 2008, was originally called the St. Petersburg Bowl before changing to the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. It switched back to the original moniker last season, and East Carolina beat Ohio University in that tussle, 37-20.
This bout marks the third meeting between NC State and UCF on the football field, with the series knotted at 1-1. The first meeting took place in 2007, with the Knights winning, 25-23. The Wolfpack got even three years last with a 28-21 triumph.
NC State was certainly productive on offense during the regular season, putting up just shy of 30 ppg behind a balanced attack that generated 206 ypg on the ground and 196 ypg via the pass. The team converted 46 percent of its third-down opportunities, and featured three guys who rushed for at least 495 yards, and four who had a minimum of 319 receiving yards.
Shadrach Thornton led the backs with 811 yards and nine TDs, while Bo Hines was the top down-field threat with 42 receptions for 537 yards, but only one score. Matt Dayes and David Grinnage caught five TD passes each from QB Jacoby Brissett, who completed roughly 60 percent of his throws for 2,344 yards, 22 TDs and only five INTs.
From a defensive standpoint, the Wolfpack allowed the opposition to put up 27 ppg, with 175.6 ypg coming on the ground and another 197.5 ypg through the air. Foes actually converted their third-down chances at an even 50 percent, and the NC State defense came up with only 19 turnovers.
Linebacker Jerod Fernandez stood his ground to the tune of a team-high 76 tackles, and he added two picks for good measure. Safety Josh Jones intercepted three passes, while DE Art Norman led the club with 6.5 sacks. Fellow bookend Mike Rose was credited with 14 of the Wolfpack's 85 TFL.
Doeren, who is putting the wraps on his second season in Raleigh, spoke with pride after his team accepted the bid to play in this game.
"We are both excited and thankful for the opportunity to play in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl," he said. "This is a great reward for our young team that has continued to improve over the course of the season, especially for the 12 current players from Florida who will be able to be home for the holidays."
UCF had similar success with regard to putting points on the board this season, doing so for 28.2 ppg. The Knights did it a bit differently however, utilizing the talents of first-time starter Justin Holman under center. Taking over for former star Blake Bortles, Holman hit 59 percent of his passes for 2,661 yards, 20 TDs and 13 INTs.
Rannell Hall led the team with 42 receptions, but he did not catch a TD pass and his 422 yards were less than half that of Breshad Perriman who caught one fewer ball but logged 906 yards and a team-high nine TDs. JJ Worton tallied 36 grabs for 514 yards and five scores, while Josh Reese added 33 catches for 477 yards and three TDs. As for the UCF rushing attack, which generated only 3.2 ypc, William Stanback was high man with 659 yards and 10 TDs.
The UCF defense stood tall against nearly all comers this season, yielding a mere 17.9 ppg behind typical outputs of 97.4 ypg rushing and 185.4 ypg passing -- all three ranking the team in the top-11 of the 125 FBS teams charted by the NCAA. The defense allowed the enemy to move the chains only 37 percent of the time on third-down conversion attempts, while logging 33 sacks and 27 turnovers.
Defensive back Jacoby Glenn picked off seven passes (tied for third-most in the country), while LB Terrance Plummer led the unit with 92 tackles. Defensive linemen Thomas Niles and Jaryl Mamea each had 6.5 sacks.
"After a 9-3 season we are very happy to go to the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl," O'Leary said after accepting the bid. "Obviously a bowl game is a great reward for the players, the program and the fanbase. We are very anxious to get to St. Petersburg and enjoy the bowl and its festivities. It will be a great experience for our players and fans."