6. Tackles for loss by UCF defensive linemen Thomas Niles and Troy Davis. Davis, I saw coming. Davis was a solid speed rusher this season, and with the number of third-and-longs Ball State faced (see below), one would have assumed he'd have a good game, and he did: 5.0 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks. Niles, however, was a bit of a surprise. A 266-pound redshirt freshman tackle (well, sort of -- he spent a lot of time at end on Friday night, too), Niles took up residence in Ball State's backfield, logging 3.5 tackles for loss (he had seven in the first 13 games of the year) and 1.5 sacks. UCF won this game in the trenches, and while the offensive line had plenty of stars -- UCF's senior center, Jordan Rae, was an announcer favorite, and for good reason -- Niles and Davis made sure that, once UCF had built a lead, Ball State was not going to be able to come back.
One sack in particular was devastating for Ball State. With UCF up 21-7 late in the first half, the Cardinals faced a third-and-goal from the UCF seven. Niles lined up at left end and torched Ball State's right tackle, bringing Keith Wenning down for a huge loss. BSU's solid kicker Steven Schott missed the ensuing 35-yard field goal attempt. Three plays later, the BSU defense suffered a breakdown (freshman receiver Breshad Perriman got deep for a 45-yard reception), setting up a UCF score with five seconds left in the half. Instead of potentially going into the half down 21-10, Ball State was down 28-7 and had no chance.
7.4. Average yards to go for Ball State on third down. The Cardinals faced 10 or more yards to go 36 percent of the time, and UCF faced four yards or fewer 50 percent of the time (average yards to go for UCF: 5.2). Guess who won?
8.9. Average yards per carry for UCF quarterback Blake Bortles. As I said in the game preview, the UCF coaching staff puts a lot of trust in the sophomore, and the trust has paid off for the most part. Despite throwing a disproportionate amount of the time on passing downs, Bortles still completed 63 percent of his passes for the season (he was 22-for-33 for 272 yards and three touchdowns on Friday night), but his ability to extend plays with his legs improved as the season progressed.
Bortles killed Ball State with two particular runs. On the third play of the game, UCF faced a third-and-12, and Ball State got decent pressure on Bortles. But he escaped the pocket, extended the play toward the sideline, then found a lane and burst forward for a 19-yard gain. UCF would go on to score on a grueling, seven-minute drive. Then, after Ball State had survived an early surge and cut UCF's lead to 13-7, he plowed into two Ball State tacklers at the goal line on third-and-goal from the 6, fell forward, and scored. If Ball State makes stops on these two plays, the game plays out in a completely different fashion. But they didn't.
23.7. Ball State's average starting field position. I mentioned in the preview that both of these teams were excellent in the field position battle. The Cardinals needed to win this fight to account for other deficiencies, and they just did not. They were only able to make four trips inside UCF's 40-yard line, and even if they had scored touchdowns on every trip, it wouldn't have been enough.
60. Wins for UCF in eight years in Conference USA. The Knights made the worst possible transition from the MAC to CUSA in 2004, going 0-11 in their final MAC season (George O'Leary's first in Orlando), but they more than held their own after the move. They had three 10-win seasons and three losing seasons -- it's kind of O'Leary's M.O. at this point; either everything comes together or nothing does -- and now they move to the Big East (or whatever it might be called soon) with a decent amount of momentum.
Even with a 5-7 campaign in 2011, UCF has won 34 games in the last four years and takes a lot of young talent (Bortles, running back Storm Johnson and receivers J.J. Worton and Rannell Hall will be juniors, Breshad Perriman, Thomas Niles and others will be sophomores) into what might be a pretty competitive Big East Eastern Division (UCF, Cincinnati, UConn, Louisville, Rutgers, USF). Yes, this alignment could change depending on whether Boise State and San Diego State decide to stay in the Mountain West, but for right now UCF is preparing for another jump in competition, and the Knights should expect to hold their own.
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