by Scott Horn
UCF Knights vs. Ball State Cardinals
7:30 P.M. on ESPN
After a turbulent 5-7 season, one which witnessed myriad sure victories dissolve in games' waning moments, UCF Head Football Coach George O'Leary beseeched one thing of his team in 2012: to "finish."
Now, quarterback Blake Bortles and company must decide, in this season's final act -- to strive or to stumble?
The Central Florida Knights meet Ball State tonight to decide the Beef O' Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg and punctuate a season that, despite nine wins, a Conference USA Championship berth, and sweet absolution from last year's debacle, could have yielded more.
A heads-up contest against Ohio State, in Columbia, showcased Bortles' potential as a steeled field general, throwing for 249 yards and two touchdowns, and seemed to vindicate O'Leary's decision in promoting Bortles to first string over quarterback-turned-receiver Jeff Godfrey. But three interceptions, a listless running game, and the Buckeye's scrambling dynamo Braxton Miller ultimately upended the Knights. And two weeks later, in a raucous Bright House Stadium, the Knights were a busted special teams play away from besting the SEC's Missouri Tigers, instead losing in heartbreaking fashion, 21-16.
It looked too familiar. Just a play away, a good bounce from running the table. But you could see the pieces were there, in place for a spectacular tear through their Conference USA schedule. And the Knights obliged, trouncing their C-USA opponents by an average of 36-22. Bortles threw for 2787 yards and 22 touchdowns on the year with only 7 interceptions, and running back Lavatius Murray shredded defenses for over 1000 yards on the ground and nabbed 14 touchdowns. But a tight, regular season loss and Conference USA Championship defeat to the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes would sidle the Knights' championship aspirations. A game they were projected to win by media outlets -- including myself -- in the preseason. Another labor left unfinished.
Ball State's defense has surrendered 460 yards per game this year, "good" for 104th in the nation. Murray and Bortles should eviscerate this slapshod unit, but the Knights were supposed to do other things this season, too. A victory would be great momentum for a program and a head coach who needs to garner cachet among fans as a consistent winner. Nine wins is nothing to sneeze at, but 10-4 just has more gravitas, doesn't it?
Corral your friends, wrangle some beverages, and cheer until you're hoarse. The checkered flag is waving at Tropicana Field.