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ORLANDO, Fla. – Earlier this season UCF was able to win games and eventually climbed into the Top 25 with a brand of football that was at times outright tougher than that of its opponents.
But for each of the past two weeks, the Knights haven't dominated as they inch closer to their first BCS bid. A better word to describe them probably is fortunate.
"You hope it doesn't come down to that, but if it comes down to that you've gotta lean on your players that have ability to make plays — whether it's defense or offense — and so far that's happened," coach George O'Leary O'Leary said. "But you can't bank on that all the time. Eventually it's gonna catch up with you."
The 17th-ranked Knights (8-1, 5-0 American) still set atop the American Athletic Conference as they prepare to matchup with Rutgers (5-4, 2-3), a team that has largely underachieved after entering the year with much loftier expectations.
After starting the season 4-1, Rutgers has dropped three of its last four games. Last week was a particularly humbling 52-17 loss at home to Cincinnati.
The Scarlet Knights have been banged up in recent weeks, but coach Kyle Flood said they were mending as best they can.
"I'm not worried about is mentally in this football," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said this week. "From a health standpoint you're always on the edge this time of year...you're always an injury from being younger than you are."
One thing UCF is hoping to lean on over these final three weeks of the regular season are the senior class' memories of UCF's disappointing 5-7 campaign in 2011 that saw it endure six losses by seven points or less.
They've won five games by that margin this season.
O'Leary said this year's team is more skilled at quarterback, has better playmakers and a more capable offensive line which has helped it be on the favorable side of tight games.
Senior captain and offensive lineman Justin McCray said he believes despite the close scrapes, their toughness has tightened.
"I think the experience, especially on the offensive side is great because we have a lot of players that have just played a lot of games," he said. "We know how it feels, especially with the 2011 year, being in all those close games and not coming out on top. We know how to just find a way to find victory."
Though he's not a senior, a lot of that mettle has also come from junior quarterback Blake Bortles, who followed up a rocky outing against Houston with one of his best in leading the Knights' to a win against Temple last week.
O'Leary said as nerve-racking as the past two games have been, he doesn't need to say much to focus his team.
"They know," O'Leary said. "They know that they came that close to not doing what they wanted to get done out there. And I think it's great when you don't have to tell them that."
Here are five things to watch this week during Rutgers matchup with the No. 17 Knights:
THE REMATCH. If playing to stay on track for a BCS bid wasn't enough for UCF, the Knights have a small revenge motivation. The lone meeting between the schools was in the 2009 St. Petersburg Bowl when Rutgers downed UCF 45-34
BOWL MOTIVATION: A conference title may be a pipe dream at this point, but the Scarlet Knights can become bowl eligible with a victory. It would put them in position to play in a bowl game for the eighth time in nine years.
WHO WILL START FAST? Rutgers has been most productive in the first quarter this season, where its scored 73 of its 264 points. Meanwhile, the Knights least productive quarter has been the first, where they've posted just 64 of their 317 points. They've also struggled the past two weeks in the first quarter, managing just five points.
CONTAINING BORTLES: Bortles continues to be accurate with the ball. He's completed 70 percent of his passes in back-to-back weeks. Rutgers ranks ninth in the American in pass defense, giving up 328 yards per game.
NOVA'S GROWING PAINS: Rutgers QB Gary Nova will have to play well for his team to have a chance. The junior is competing just 57 percent of his passes and has 13 interceptions on the season.
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower