UCF vs. Ball State, 2012 Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl preview: Field position is sexy, right?

Beth Hall-US PRESSWIRE

You're going to watch this game anyway, so you might as well read about it ahead of time. Below are predictions, players to watch and more.

5 Players To Watch

Blake Bortles (QB, UCF, So.). Outside of Norman, Oklahoma, few college offenses put more strain on their quarterbacks than UCF's. The Knights run 66 percent of the time on standard downs (26th-most in the country), handing frequently to a pair of quality backs (Latavis Murray, Storm Johnson). This works pretty well for UCF as a whole, but when the Knights fall behind-schedule, they put the game in Blake Bortles' hands. He isn't given many easy, early-down passes to make; if he's throwing, it's probably because UCF has to throw. That makes his stat line -- 2,787 yards, 63 percent completion rate, 22 touchdowns to seven interceptions -- more impressive than it already was. Bortles will fire to one of four different interesting receivers (J.J. Worton, Jeff Godfrey, Rannell Hall, Quincy McDuffie) and move the chains pretty well, all things considered.

Ball State, meanwhile, takes the exact opposite approach with quarterback Keith Wenning, electing to throw frequently on standard downs and play things very conservatively on passing downs. He has produced a stat line quite similar to Bortles, but he has been given a lot more easy throws to make.

Troy Davis (DE, UCF, Sr.). Despite head coach George O'Leary's defense-heavy reputation, the UCF defense actually ranked lower in Def. F/+ (50th) than the offense did in Off. F/+ (49th). The Knights are neither great nor terrible at much of anything, but when Davis is allowed easy access into an opposing backfield, they are at their best. The 250-pounder is a pure speed rusher who has had lovely moments this season (9.0 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, 13 hurries, four passes broken up, three forced fumbles), but it will take some work to get him rolling against an offense that plays conservatively in second- or third-and-long.

Latavis Murray (RB, UCF, Sr.). The big (6'3, 222 pounds) senior missed three games with injury, but in his last five games against teams not named Tulsa, he caught fire, rushing for 714 yards and nine touchdowns (Tulsa held him to 131 and two in two battles, and yes, Tulsa's defense is much better than Ball State's). Murray is steady and punishing, and he makes sure that Bortles isn't thrown into too many passing down situations.

Nathan Ollie (DT, Ball State, Jr.). Ball State's run defense has been decent this season, ranking 50th in Rushing S&P+, and while that run D, anchored by Ollie (7.5 tackles, four tackles for loss and 300 pounds of girth), will be tested by Murray and company, this isn't a guaranteed advantage for UCF. If Ollie and the BSU line hold up, the Cardinals could force plenty of passing downs and turn the game.

Willie Snead (WR, Ball State, So.). Running back Jahwan Edwards is the Cardinals' star, having rushed for 1,321 yards (6.1 per carry) and 14 touchdowns. But he did most of his damage against lesser defenses and on second- and third-and-long. To win, BSU will need to throw well, particularly on early downs, and Snead (1,070 yards, 8.2 per target, 63 percent catch rate) and Jamill Smith (706 yards, 7.0 per target, 68 percent catch rate) will need to serve, basically, as horizontal extensions of the run game. Snead can occasionally get deep, too.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. UCF's backfield is one of the better you'll see. Murray is, basically, a linebacker with good speed, Storm Johnson is exciting (if inconsistent), and Bortles is capable of bailing the offense out if the run game stutters. This isn't a great UCF team, but it is still a good one, and the backfield is one of the primary reasons why.

2. Beef 'O' Brady's is a real place. Every year, I wonder how the fake restaurant from Office Space came to sponsor a bowl game, and every year somebody tells me it's actually a real place.

3. Pete Lembo has done one hell of a job in Muncie. Ball State has had, shall we say, an up-and-down few years. The Cardinals started the 2008 season 12-0, lost the MAC championship to Buffalo in an upset, lost Brady Hoke to San Diego State, and got routed by Tulsa in the GMAC Bowl. They won 14 of 15 games in 2007-08, then lost 19 of their next 23 games. But it hasn't taken long for Lembo to pull a nice salvage job. He went 44-14 at Lehigh (2001-05), built an interesting team in a tough job at Elon, engineered a two-win improvement in his first year at Ball State (2011), then improved by another three wins (and potentially four) in his second. This is a good coach, and he has quickly constructed a salty, sound Cardinal squad. Ball State is not amazing at any particular thing, but the Cardinals also have no profound weaknesses, and riding a string of good fortune (they are 6-1 in one-possession games), they have a chance at their second 10-win season in five years. Never mind the enormous drought in between.

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

1. Field position. These teams win games in a pretty boring way, really: they avoid disaster, and they set themselves up with better field position than they will give you. Ball State ranks 18th in Field Position Advantage, and UCF ranks 20th. They tilt the field in their favor and eventually take advantage. Of course ... they cannot both derive a field position advantage in this game, so whoever does a better job of leveraging the field will probably win.

2. No, really, field position. So how do these teams leverage the field so well? With decent offenses and impeccable special teams, basically. Ball State ranks fourth in Special Teams F/+, UCF 16th. For Ball State, Jamill Smith is a strong return man (13.8 yards per punt return, 25.8 per kick return), Steven Schott has made 24 of 30 field goals (eight of 11 over 40 yards ... hmm, maybe he should have been one of the players to watch), and punter Scott Kovanda does not give opponents a shot at returns. For UCF, Quincy McDuffie has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns (34.2 yard average), and the Knights' 51.4 yard net kickoffs average is quite strong. This isn't sexy, but it has given the teams a combined 18-7 record.

3. Passing downs. On standard downs, on each side of the ball, the battle is pretty even. But UCF derives a serious advantage when the game falls into second- or third-and-long. Blake Bortles is more adept at digging UCF out of holes than Keith Wenning, and UCF's secondary is good enough to shut down drives against a not-so-aggressive offense. BSU can't win with field position alone; the Cardinals will also need to extend some drives. Can they?

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: UCF by 4.3
Bill's Pick: UCF by 10. I don't think Ball State has enough weapons on offense.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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