Seeking solace for losing the C-USA title game in overtime, the UCF Knights enjoyed a virtual home-field advantage against the Ball State Cardinals in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl at St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field. After an unimpressive start to their season, the MAC team had reeled off six straight victories as they overcame their defensive struggles with a ferocious and versatile offense typical of their conference. Somewhat stiffer on defense while still explosive on offense, the Knights entered the bowl as a slight favorite. Meanwhile, Ball State entered the game without a single bowl victory in its history and ended it that way as well after a dominant performance on both sides of the ball by UCF in the first bowl game this year that did not feature a lead change.
Receiving the opening kickoff, UCF marched deep into Ball State territory without much difficulty as the notoriously porous Cardinals defense struggled to stop the Knights either on the ground or through the air. The Knights faced no long third downs en route to the red zone, where the most exciting play came at the end. Under extreme pressure, Knights quarterback Blake Bortles narrowly dodged a sack for a loss and wove an eight-yard touchdown toss to Murray around several defenders to cap a 78-yard opening drive that consumed half of the quarter. The Ball State offense gained just three yards on its first possession and punted from near its own 20, which gave the surging Knights strong field position not far from midfield. Converting a third-and-eight with a long completion, they soon reached the 2-yard line with a substantial pass-interference penalty, and Murray wasted no time in punching the score through. Able to block the extra point for their first ray of hope, the Cardinals benefited from an out-of-bounds kickoff to start their crucial second drive. Ball State running back Jahwan Edwards carried the offense on his shoulders for the first few plays before a shift to passing resulted in three straight incompletions and another punt. Downed inside the 10, it did not forestall UCF from mounting yet another long drive that finally stalled at midfield as the quarter ended.
UCF 13, Ball State 0
After producing zero yards in the first quarter, the Ball State passing game finally started to click with three straight completions. That improved success from quarterback Keith Wenning benefited the running game as well by keeping the Knights defense honest on first and second downs. In less than three minutes, the Cardinals marched from their own red zone into the UCF red zone, where a seven-yard pass from Wenning to Willie Snead sliced the deficit in half. That 10-play, 82-yard drive represented the ideal response to the debacle of the first quarter and sent a message of intent to the opposing sideline. On the following UCF possession, Bortles showcased his legs as much as his arm on two long scrambles that brought the ball deep into Cardinals territory. From third-and-goal at the 6, he again kept the ball and maneuvered around several befuddled defenders for his team’s third touchdown, followed by an easy completion into the back of the end zone for the two-point conversion. Ball State showed some variation between rush and pass on their next possession, which started at their own 14 after a penalty but did not face a third down until inside UCF territory. Averaging over nine yards per rush at that stage, Edwards nearly burst through for a long touchdown run. A messy sequence of penalties and miscommunications ensued in the shadow of the goal line before a third-and-goal sack ended Ball State's touchdown hopes, and a miserably botched 35-yard attempt added to their frustration. Although UCF produced little on the first few plays of their final first-half possession, beginning with under a minute remaining, a spectacular Bortles completion moved the ball 45 yards inside the red zone. An issue with which both secondaries struggled in the half, defensive pass interference set up an and-goal opportunity at the 5, which the Knights converted with a second touchdown toss to Murray just before time expired.
With the first half complete, then, the favored UCF squad held a distinct advantage with their three-score lead. Nevertheless, the volatile offense on the opposite sideline possessed more than enough firepower to mount a charge in the second half—at least if their defense could summon some resolve.
UCF 28, Ball State 7
On the first offensive play of the second half, Ball State committed the first turnover of the game with a fumble inside their own 40, not a mistake that they could afford while trailing by three touchdowns. Unable to capitalize on the mistake, the Knights turned the ball over on downs following a third-down overthrow and fourth-down underthrow. Starting over in essentially the same spot as the first possession of the period, Ball State benefited from consecutive penalties by the UCF defense to move the ball across midfield without much effort. Wenning found his passing rhythm at that stage, while the running game regularly collected positive yardage until a bad snap led to a negative third-down play near the UCF 30. Considering their kicking woes from the first half, Ball State fans surely held their breath on a 45-yard attempt—which sailed through the uprights, perfectly struck. An onside kick, not a bad idea in view of the score and the beleaguered Cardinals defense, succeeded only in giving UCF possession at midfield. A sequence of productive short-range plays concluded with a fine running pass from Bortles under pressure into the corner of the end zone. Throughout the game, the UCF quarterback excelled at dodging defenders in his vicinity and finding space to throw. The Knights defense then committed several undisciplined penalties on the next drive when calm, unspectacular play would have sufficed to stop the desperate Cardinals. A few plays later, an injury to Wenning’s fragile ankle contributed to crippling their drive as the quarter waned.
UCF 35, Ball State 10
Early in this largely meaningless period, UCF seemed focused on draining the clock with a series of rushing plays, one of which gained more than 30 yards. As it turned out, they did not need to choose between points and time, for the drive moved inside the 10 before producing a short field goal. Ball State then drove the other direction for their second touchdown with less than six minutes to go, nothing more than a moment of consolation amidst the overall rout. Enjoying a comfortable lead, UCF then ran out the clock comfortably before their supportive crowd went home happy and Ball State still without its first bowl victory.
Final score: UCF 38, Ball State 17
Next bowl recap:
MAACO Bowl Las Vegas (Washington vs. #19 Boise State)