For a game that lacked much drama, not to mention a lot of sharpness on either side of the football for long stretches, UCF still allowed itself to dream big on this sunny Saturday at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
Having already locked up a spot in next week’s Conference USA title game, UCF went out in the regular-season finale and took care of business against Memphis and continued to carry the belief that if it can keep winning it can be back in the Liberty Bowl again in a month.
UCF used another spectacular day from freshman quarterback Jeff Godfrey and two-touchdown efforts from wide out Jamar Newsome and tailback Latavius Murray to pull away from Memphis 37-17 before a crowd of 14,992.
The victory ensured that the Knights (9-3 overall and 7-1 in Conference USA play) will head into Saturday’s Conference USA title game against SMU (7-5 and 6-2) with plenty of positive momentum. UCF has won seven of its last eight games with a home loss against Southern Miss being the only blip since Sept. 25.
Win next Saturday and the Knights could be back in Memphis for the Dec. 31 Liberty Bowl for the second time in school history. Several of UCF’s seniors admitted that nothing would be sweeter than ending the season in the same place many of them did in 2007.
“I’m not going to lie, I’ve definitely thought about coming back here to the Liberty Bowl,” said UCF senior linebacker Derrick Hallman, who recorded his first interception of the season on Saturday. “But I’m extremely excited about going to play next week so we can have that opportunity to play (in another Liberty Bowl).”
The Knights actually secured a spot in next Saturday’s Conference USA title game and clinched the East Division crown for a third time in six years the day before when SMU beat East Carolina in overtime and Southern Miss lost to Tulsa. The Knights and Mustangs haven’t played since 2008, a UCF 31-17 win. The two teams are slated to meet again next season in Dallas.
“There were some guys running through the hallways (at the team hotel) when we found out we were in the title game, but we knew that we still had to come out and play hard (on Saturday),” said UCF standout senior defensive end Bruce Miller, who became the school’s all-time leader in sacks (32) with two QB drops on Saturday. “Our goal is the conference championship, but it’s also to go out and win every game. But there was a sigh of relief knowing we were going to get into that game. We’re expecting a full house and a great atmosphere and it’s going to be a great game.”
Tickets for the C-USA title game at Bright House Networks Stadium are on sale for $30 at TicketMaster.com, UCFAthletics.com or by calling (407) 823-1000. UCF also hosted the game in 2005 and 2007, losing to Tulsa in 2005 and defeating the Golden Hurricane in 2007.
UCF’s nine wins are tied for the second-most in school history, trailing only the 10 in 1990 and 2007. And on Saturday, UCF won its school-record fifth road game of the season. The Knights had never won more than four times away from Orlando before this season.
UCF coach George O’Leary said there was great satisfaction in his team closing out the regular season with a convincing victory even though there was little to play for. O’Leary is also proud that the Knights set a goal before the season of winning the conference title and now they are in position to do just that.
“We came away from here with a good win, a conference win and we secured the Eastern Division. Now, all that is left to do is go play SMU in the conference championship game,” O’Leary said. “I know our fan base will be excited about it and our players are very excited about it. … We’ll have our hands full and I’m looking forward to playing SMU.”
Godfrey, who breathed life into UCF’s offense with his dazzling play-making skills on the ground and through the air, closed his first regular season as a Knight by completing 14 of 17 passes for 252 yards and two touchdowns. With a 245.79 efficiency rating, it is his third game this season with a rating of 232 or better.
“I started off kind of slow where I wasn’t making the right reads, but in the second half I picked it up, the O-line did a good job protecting and we played better in the second half,” Godfrey said. “We set this goal at the beginning of the season all through camp. Now, we want to win it.”
Newsome, UCF’s blossoming wide receiver, had touchdown catches of 56 and 23 yards early in the fourth quarter to break open the game. Newsome had the third 100-yard game of the season with 118 yards on nine catches. And his first touchdown catch extended UCF’s streak of consecutive games with a 40-yard touchdown catch to six games.
“It’s a lovely feeling (being in the title game),” Newsome said. “Our coach has been saying that it’s not often you get a chance to reach your goals and we have that opportunity now. It’s a lovely, lovely feeling.’
UCF freshman Jordan Ozerities, who returned an interception 100 yards a week ago at Tulane on the game’s final play, opened the second half by forcing a fumble on the kickoff. Two minutes later, Murray was in the end zone for a touchdown that put the Knights up 23-7.
UCF muddled through a sloppy first half and led 16-7 at the break. The lead certainly could have been much more substantial had the Knights not had a touchdown wiped out by an illegal pick penalty, a fumble inside the 20-yard line and a hooked extra point.
The Knights scored first for the 11th time in 12 games when Godfrey scampered around left end for a nine-yard touchdown run. It was his 10th rushing touchdown of the season, extending his UCF record for rushing scores by a freshman quarterback.
But a Memphis team that had mustered very little offense all season immediately responded with a score of its own to tie the game at seven-all. Coming into the game, UCF had allowed just 20 points in the first quarter all season, while the Tigers had just scored 35 first-period points.
Miller secured his place in the UCF’s history books by becoming the Knights’ all-time leader in sacks with 32. Miller dropped Memphis’ quarterback Ryan Williams twice in the first half to unseat previous record-holder Darrell Rudd (1981-84).
Said O’Leary: “I’ve been around a lot of good football players and Bruce Miller is as good as any of them. He just does so many things well. He’s kind of playing out of position for us, but it’s because he’s so unselfish.”
Miller said he savored setting the record, but he was even prouder of the fact that the Knights are a win away from accomplishing their goal of a second league title in four years. And that, he knows, could put UCF back in the Liberty Bowl again.
“I’ve been to the title game before and I know what it takes to get there and these guys have done that and more,” Miller said. “Ending the season 7-1 with the best record in the conference, we deserve it because we’ve put in so much work. This year has been a grind and our guys have done a good job all season of playing how we know we’re supposed to play.”
John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.