Ball St., UCF ready for Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - The winner of the Beef `O' Brady's Bowl will finish with 10 victories this season. That is a major step forward for growing programs such as Ball State and Central Florida.
The Cardinals and Knights meet Friday night at Tropicana Field in a game that Ball State coach Pete Lembo and UCF's George O'Leary view as an opportunity set a nice tone for next season.
Ball State (9-3) is seeking its first bowl win in eight tries, while UCF (9-4) hopes to rebound from a loss in the Conference USA championship game in its final game before moving into the new-look Big East.
"I think one of our coaches mentioned this week that only 25 teams have the chance to win 10 games, so that would be huge,'' UCF safety Lyle Dankenbring said. "A great way to go out.''
In two seasons at Ball State, Lembo has led an impressive turnaround that includes a pair of victories this season over members of BCS conferences. The Cardinals have won six straight following 3-3 start featuring losses to Clemson, Kent State and Orange Bowl-bound Northern Illinois.
"When we got to Ball State two years ago, one of our long-term goals was to get the program to a point where we could be playing in meaningful postseason games like this one,'' said Lembo, who inherited a team that went 4-8 in 2010. "To be here as quickly as we are, in two years, is really special.''
The Cardinals improved to 6-6 in Lembo's first season. This year they rode an explosive offense to a surprising 6-2 record in the Mid-American Conference, as well as wins over Indiana from the Big Ten and South Florida of the Big East.
The three teams that beat them - Clemson and MAC rivals Northern Illinois and Kent State - are all headed to bowl games and finished have a combined record of 33-5. Beating UCF will give the Cardinals the third 10-win season in school history.
O'Leary is impressed with film he's watched of Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning, who's thrown for 2,878 yards, 22 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. His favorite target, Willie Snead, has 82 receptions for 1,070 yards and seven TDs, while Jahwan Edwards has averaged 6.1 yards per carry while rushing for 1,321 yards and 14 touchdowns.
"`Two years ago when this process started we talked about building a program the right way,'' said Lembo, who's 15-9 at Ball State after successful stints at Lehigh and Elon.
The Cardinals, appearing in a postseason game for the first time since winning 12 and appearing in the 2008 GMAC Bowl, were second in the MAC in total offense at 471.3 yards per game and have scored 30 or more 10 times this season.
UCF, which has lost two of three following a six-game winning streak, led Conference USA in scoring defense while allowing 162.4 yards per game on the ground and 217.8 per game through the air.
The Knights are in a bowl game for the fifth time in nine years under O'Leary, whose stint with the Knights began with an 0-11 finish in 2004.
They followed the second of two Conference USA titles they've captured under the former Georgia Tech coach with a win over Georgia in 2010 Liberty Bowl and are trying to finish with 10 wins for just the third time since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision.
UCF moved from the MAC to Conference USA in 2005 and posted double-digit wins in 2007 and 2010. Ball State won two of the previous three meetings between the teams, including 21-17 in 2004, the Knights' final season in the MAC.
"It's been an amazing five years here,'' Knights running back Brynn Harvey said. "It flew by so fast, so every moment I have right now I am trying to soak it in with my teammates and seniors that I came in with.''
Both of UCF losses down the stretch were on the road at Tulsa, where the Knights dropped the Conference USA title game in overtime. They also suffered early-season losses to Ohio State and Missouri.
A balanced offense has been a big part of UCF's success. Blake Bortles has thrown for 2,787 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions, J.J. Worton is the team's leading receiver with 41 catches for 562 yards and four TDs, and Latavius Murray was an all-Conference USA selection after rushing for 1,035 yards and 14 TDs.
The loss in the Conference USA championship game cost the Knights a trip to Memphis, Tenn., for the Liberty Bowl, however Harvey said winding up in St. Petersburg - just over 100 miles west of the UCF campus in Orlando - is not a bad consolation. UCF also played in the Beef `O' Brady's Bowl in 2009, losing to Rutgers.
"Every senior wants to go out with a bang, especially in their last game,'' Harvey said. "You want to come out as the winner, and playing in the bowl game in St. Petersburg - in a great atmosphere and a great environment - you want to win here, too.''