Latavius Murray rushed for 94 yards and scored two touchdowns Saturday to lead Central Florida to a 17-7 victory over Southern Methodist in the Conference USA championship game.
The Knights (10-3) won their second league title and a trip to the Liberty Bowl in their seventh season under George O’Leary, the former Georgia Tech coach who’s led a dramatic turnaround since taking over a struggling program and going 0-11 in his first year on the job.
Jeff Godfrey completed 15 of 19 passes for 167 yards, including a 5-yard TD throw to Murray to finish a long scoring drive in the opening quarter. Murray also scored his 10th rushing TD of the season, breaking a 36-yard run to make it 17-0 in the third quarter.
SMU (7-6), which was trying to win its first league championship since sharing the Southwest Conference crown, scored on Kyle Padron’s 22-yard pass to Aldrick Robinson early in the fourth quarter.
Padron was 18 of 34 for 220 yards passing, but he also was intercepted twice and sacked five times. He drove his team into UCF territory in the closing minutes, only to have the Knights stop the threat on downs with their final sack.
UCF won for the eighth time in nine games, including three in a row since a 31-21 loss to Southern Mississippi ended a brief stay in the Top 25.
The first national ranking in the program’s 30-year history lasted one week, yet accentuates just how far the Knights have come since going 0-11 in 2004 — O’Leary’s first season, and the year before UCF joined Conference USA.
SMU’s turnaround in three years under former NFL and Hawaii coach June Jones has been just as impressive. Finally showing signs of recovering from being hit with the NCAA death penalty for rules violations, the Mustangs are headed to bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1983 and 1984.
UCF set the tone for a dominating performance, marching 73 yards in 13 plays following the opening kickoff to take a 7-0 lead on Godfrey’s short TD throw to Murray. Nick Cattoi’s 29-yard field goal made it 10-0 on the final play of the first half.
The Knights held the ball for more than 13 minutes of the first quarter, and the combined 10 points for the teams were the fewest scored in an opening half in the six-year history of the Conference USA championship game.
Murray’s second touchdown finished an eight-play, 85-yard drive that extended UCF’s lead to 17 heading into the fourth quarter.
The 6-foot-3, 221-pound running back was voted the game’s most valuable player. He carried 22 times while sharing the workload with Ronnie Weaver and Godfrey, one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks.
Darius Johnson had nine receptions for 105 yards for SMU. Zach Line rushed for 94 yards on 18 attempts for the Mustangs.