TEAMS: Ball State Cardinals (9-3, 6-2 Mid-American Conference) vs. UCF Golden Knights (9-4, 7-1 Conference USA)
TIME: Friday Dec. 21, 7:30 p.m. ET
LAS VEGAS LINES: UCF -7; Over/Under 60 points
In its fifth season of existence, the Beef-o-Brady’s Bowl welcomes nearby UCF back for its second stint at Tropicana Park. This marks the the fourth year the Sunshine State has had representation in this fledgling bowl: USF participated in the inaugural edition, UCF was here in 2009 and FIU lost a close one to Marshall a season ago.
UCF was handed NCAA sanctions this summer, including a one-year bowl ban. But returning a talented and experienced corps of talent, the university appealed the NCAA’s decision. A ruling on that appeal won’t come until January, the NCAA announced in late October, thereby allowing UCF to both represent the East division in Conference USA’s title game and play in a bowl.
The Golden Knights fell short in the former, taking Tulsa to overtime but suffering through a series of critical special teams gaffes that proved costly. Nevertheless, 2012 was a nice bounce back for George O’Leary’s team on the field. The 2011 version underwhelmed tremendously, going 4-8 fresh off a program best 11-3 that culminated in a bowl game defeat of Georgia.
Precedent shows O’Leary’s teams fluctuate vastly from season-to-season; with a move to the Big East impending and UCF’s tendency to dip following strong seasons, perhaps the university’s decision to fight, or at least delay its bowl ban a season. Since reaching its first bowl game in 2005, UCF has only made consecutive postseason appearances once, in 2009 and 2010.
Nevertheless, O’Leary seems to have an eye on 2013 a bit prematurely. He and new USF head coach Willie Taggart have gone back-and-forth in the media over the past week, albeit tamely. O’Leary will want to shift focus for Friday, because on the opposite sideline in the Beef-o-Brady’s Bowl is an outstanding coach with an overachieving team.
Pete Lembo came to Ball State after a successful run at FCS programs Elon and Lehigh. At Lehigh, Lembo had not one losing season: from 2001 through 2005, he went 44-14 and twice coached the Mountain Hawks to the NCAA Playoffs. When he took over Elon in 2006, the Phoenix had not had a record better than 4-7 since 2000, suffering the growing pains of moving up to Division I.
Lembo had the Phoenix rising quickly. Elon won seven games in 2007, eight games in 2008, then made the postseason in 2009. His high octane offense facilitated the talents of wide receiver Terrell Hudgins, who broke several NCAA records. Lembo has since installed a similar philosophy at Ball State, and has the Cardinals flying high. Ball State is one of the surprises of the 2012 season, ripping off nine wins behind a 35 point per game offense and reaching just the sixth bowl game in program history.
The Cardinals beat two BCS conference opponents in Indiana and USF. Their losses are to teams with a combined 33-5 record: Clemson, Kent State and Northern Illinois.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
#WENNING: That’s the hash-tag those of you who are college football tweeps can expect to use often on Friday night. Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning is in his third season starting for the Cardinals. He’s improved his play each season, this year throwing 22 touchdowns and 2878 yards on 65.5 percent completions. Should Wenning continue to refine his abilities, he’ll emerge as the MAC’s next coveted NFL Draft prospect for 2014, a la Miami’s Zac Dysert this year.
Wenning has pro size at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, and at Tropicana Field, he’ll have a national stage on which to begin his draft hype. He has two reliable targets in Willie Snead and Jamill Smith, who combined for 1776 yards and 13 touchdowns receiving. Countering the Golden Knight is no easy feat for the Cardinal offense. O’Leary’s teams have typically been among the nation’s stingiest during his time at UCF. The Golden Knights allow just 22.5 points per game, good for No. 29 in the FBS.
Safety Kemal Ishmael is the star of the UCF defense. He earned C-USA Defensive Player of the Year honors with 116 tackles, three interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles. Defensive end Troy Davis provides the Golden Knights’ pressure up front. Davis earned All C-USA 1st Team honors for 66-tackle, 6.5 sack campaign. His ability to disrupt Wenning and the Cardinal ball carriers early should set UCF’s tone. Enough pressure on Wenning could set up defensive back A.J. Buoye to force some turnovers. Wenning cut down on his interceptions this season, but did reach double digits (10) for a third straight season.
Establishing a consistent rush is crucial for the Cardinals. Ball State’s approach is balanced. Running back Jahwan Edwards is a powerful rusher with NFL size (5-foot-10, 225 pounds) and production to match. He’s carrying for better than six yards an attempt en route to over 1300 yards and 14 touchdowns. Smaller, third down style back Horactio Banks has backed up Edwards with minimal drop-off in production.
Merely scoring points won’t be enough for Ball State, though. After reaching the end zone, the Cardinal special teams play a huge role in Friday’s outcome. That’s because Golden Knight return special Quincy McDuffie can change a game’s course in an instance. Take the Golden Knights’ win over East Carolina in October, which would prove to be the divisional championship.
McDuffie is one of four Golden Knight receivers with at least three touchdown catches. Spreading the wealth is the style quarterback Blake Bortles employs. Bortles beat out former starter Rob Calabrese and Missouri transfer Tyler Gabbert for No. 1 duties, and made good on the opportunity with steady production: 2787 yards, 62.6 percent completions and 22 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.
J.J. Worton, Rannell Hall and converted former quarteback Jeff Godfrey have combined for 108 receptions, 1559 yards and 11 touchdowns. The trio provides a nice complement to 1000-yard rusher Latavius Murray, who scored 14 touchdowns. Watch Ball State linebacker Travis Freeman, a ball hawking rush pursuer who led the Cardinals with 119 tackles. His ability to contain Murray is key to Ball State’s defensive efforts.