Dressed in gold jerseys and gold pants for what is believed to be the first time in school history, UCF authored a solid gold performance Friday night to conclude a frustrating season on a positive note.
With a career-best rushing day from junior tailback Latavius Murray and some smothering play from its defense, UCF totally overwhelmed UTEP 31-14 at Bright House Networks Stadium in what proved to be the season finale for both teams.
Unfortunately for the Knights (5-7, 3-5 Conference USA), the resurgence came too late and there will be no bowl game in December. UCF was an impressive 5-1 at home this season, but its downfall was a 0-6 mark on the road. Six of the Knights’ seven losses this season were by seven or fewer points, leaving them wondering what could have been this season had a few extra plays gone their way.
“This win means everything in the world to us because me and my teammates fought hard this year but lost some games by close margins. But for us to play like this in the last game means a lot to me,” senior wide receiver A.J. Guyton said. “Everything happens for a reason and it just wasn’t our year this year. But at least we ended on a positive note.”
UCF head coach George O’Leary said a game as good as Friday’s made him think even more about how the season could have transpired differently. O’Leary said he was happy most of all that the most successful senior class in school history went out with a victory in its last game.
“I’m happy for the senior class on Senior Night to go out winners. As I told the team, I thought they played hard all year, but we just weren’t as successful as we’d have liked to have been,” O’Leary said. “We just came up a possession short or a stop short in each of those games. But our kids executed today and made plays.”
Murray, who made another late-season charge similar to last season when he earned Most Valuable Player honors in both the Conference USA title game and the Liberty Bowl, ran for 233 yards and two scores and caught another touchdown in the lopsided victory.
Murray’s rushing total ranks as the fourth most in school history and was UCF’s first 200-yard rushing day in two seasons. He vowed early in the week that UCF would play hard in the final game to honor the 15 seniors who have meant so much to the program.
“I wanted to help the seniors a lot because I would hope if I was a senior the underclassmen would do the same for me,” said Murray, who will return next season as the starting tailback. “We did what we had to do, and the seniors did what they had to do, and we went out on a great note.”
UTEP (5-7, 2-6 C-USA) entered Friday’s game with with a bowl bid on the line, but the Miners never stood a chance against a determined UCF team. Because UTEP did not reach six wins, Conference USA is unable to fill its six bowl slots. Remarkably, the Miners have never won a game played in the Eastern Time Zone. They are 0-17-1 all-time in such games with the tie coming in 1949 against West Virginia.
UCF pitched a shutout for three-plus quarters before allowing a meaningless 2-yard touchdown pass with 11:23 to play in the game. The Knights were hoping to post their third home shutout of the season, which would have been the most of any team in the country.
The game was the final one at UCF for noted seniors Josh Linam, Cliff McCray, Darius Nall, Adam Nissley, Nick Pieschel, Ronnie Weaver and Guyton. Linam had nine tackles and a third-quarter interception. Nall registered the 16th sack of his career and tipped a pass and Guyton added a 29-yard reception. McCray, Pieschel and Nissley opened holes all night for Murray. That senior class helped UCF reach two bowl games (2009 and ’10) and win two C-USA titles (2007 and ’10).
“Looking at this game, this was about the best thing that could have happened for the seniors,” said McCray, whose younger brothers – twins Jordan and Justin – return next season. “Me and the seniors have been talking a lot, all of us who have played here since 2007. … The main thing that I wanted to do was tell the guys that I played with that I love them. I said a little prayer to myself thanking God because UCF has meant a lot to me and I was so grateful.”
Sophomore Jeff Godfrey started at quarterback, and redshirt freshman Blake Bortles ended the game. Bortles threw for 158 yards and a TD, while Godfrey hit on five of six throws for 53 yards. O’Leary said he fully anticipates using both quarterbacks next season.
Wide out J.J. Worton had three more catches, giving him 41 for the season and the new UCF record for receptions by a freshman. He broke the previous mark of 40 set in 1987 by Sean Beckton, now UCF’s defensive backs coach.
Fellow redshirt freshman Josh Reese had a 43-yard grab in the second quarter, while true freshman Rannell Hall had two grabs for 17 yards. The position with the most question marks prior to the season, UCF heads into next season knowing it has plenty of returning playmakers at wide receiver.
“For three guys coming in, they really did play well,” O’Leary said. “Reese made a great catch on that broken play that we threw deep and Worton continues to catch everything near him. They’re only going to get better. And Rannell Hall really needs to come on this offseason and understand the game better and what’s going on. But they had terrific freshman years in terms of catching balls and making plays.”
UCF opened the game with its most dominant half of football in weeks, racing to a 24-0 lead by intermission. The Knights held a whopping 303-94 advantage in yards in the first two quarters and held the Miners to just five first downs.
The Knights started the game well with a 38-yard touchdown sprint from Murray and closed the half with a 6-yard touchdown lob from Bortles to Murray. In between, Bortles had a touchdown dive from one yard and a 23-yard field goal from senior kicker Nick Cattoi.
Raved UTEP coach Mike Price, referring to Murray: “Number 28 was fantastic. He looked like Eric Dickerson the way he was running the ball all over us.”
Bortles was spectacular in the first half, hitting on seven of eight passes for 139 yards. He got plenty of help from Worton and Josh Reese. Reese had a dazzling 43-yard catch in the second quarter, while Worton had a diving 34-yarder to get the Knights inside the 10-yard.
Murray, a starter at tailback the past two weeks, rumbled off left tackle in the first quarter and ran untouched past the secondary for a 38-yard score to put the Knights up 7-0. Murray’s run was set up by a 29-yard catch and run by Guyton.
Said Murray: “I know the line was doing a great job and there were some big holes there. As a back you just have to hit the holes when they are blocking like that. We just got it going early and kept it rolling.”
UCF pushed the lead to 14-0 when Murray ripped off runs 13 and 20 yards to set up Bortles’ 1-yard sneak.
But this night was all about UCF’s senior class. After weeks of frustration and close losses, the seniors were finally able to walk off the field with a feeling of happiness.
“It finally hit me Thursday night because I was quiet all day and had some alone time,” Nall said. “Coming into this game, I had so many emotions running through my head. … I’m disappointed with how the season went, but I’m just so happy with us pulling out this last win.”