Dec. 4, 2010
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Playing in a conference where points often come in bunches and numbers regularly flash on scoreboards like pinball machines, UCF senior captains Bruce Miller and Derrick Hallman desperately wanted to turn Saturday's Conference USA title game into a testament about the quality and nastiness of their defense.
And after a day of smothering SMU's high-powered, run-and-shoot offense, it was only fitting that the end of the championship game came with UCF's defense on the field and swarming furiously.
When UCF sacked quarterback Kyle Padron three times on the game's final offensive drive - by three different players nonetheless - the Knights were finally able to celebrate a 17-7 defeat of SMU and a second league championship in four seasons.
A Bright House Networks Stadium crowd of 41,045 and a nationally televised audience saw the Knights (10-3) set a C-USA title game record for fewest points allowed with just seven. The Knights had five sacks, forced two turnovers and played sound defensively all day to secure their goal from the beginning of the season to be conference champs once again.
``This game wasn't about their offense, this was about us (defensively),'' said Hallman, who had six more tackles, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry. ``We wanted to set our trademark out there and to show how good we are. We wanted to send a statement and let the world know how good we are on defense.''
That stingy defensive effort, combined with an early touchdown catch and a third-quarter 36-yard TD sprint from Most Valuable Player Latavius Murray and more efficient play from freshman phenom quarterback Jeff Godfrey, set off a wild celebration inside Bright House Networks Stadium.
Godfrey, whose name was chanted in unison by the student section, jumped headlong into the sea of Knights fans after the game. Cornerback Josh Robinson, who played his best game of the season with an interception, two long pass breakups and seven tackles, was the first to get his hands on a `Conference USA champions' T-shirt and hat and proudly showed it to everyone. And Murray, the sophomore returning from a devastating knee injury a season ago, had tears in his eyes as he held the MVP trophy overhead.
``We're so happy to win the game in front of the great environment and we are happy for the university, the players, the team and the fan base,'' UCF head coach George O'Leary said. ``It's an outstanding win and a great day for UCF and Orlando.''
The 10th victory of the season, tying the school record set previously in 1990 and 2007, puts the Knights in the Dec. 31 Liberty Bowl likely against the Georgia Bulldogs. UCF last played in the Liberty Bowl in 2007, losing 10-3 to Mississippi State. UCF is still looking for its first-ever bowl win, and Miller thinks the Knights have the team to get it this time around.
``Seeing how far we've come since January and following through on our goal is great. Leaving here as a champion, I mean I couldn't ask for anything more,'' said Miller, who had four tackles and pushed his school record total for sacks to 34 with two more quarterback stops.
``Our mindset going into the Liberty Bowl, and you can see that from the season we've had, is we're going to win it,'' Miller continued. ``We're not just going to a bowl game and going to play an SEC school. We're going to win this game. As far as us (not winning a bowl), we haven't been able to do it yet, but hopefully this will turn out good for us.''
As has been the case since he took over the offense back in September, Godfrey was a star for the Knights with his playmaking skills via the air and the ground. He not only set a C-USA record for completion percentage (78.9 percent on 15 of 19 passing), but he also adeptly scrambled throughout the day to keep drives alive. His poise in the pocket allowed the Knights to convert on seven of their first 10 third down plays.
``It feels really great to win it this year as a freshman and I hope to win it again in the next three years,'' Godfrey said. ``We set this goal at the beginning of the year and I wanted to make it happen for the seniors and the team.''
Murray, who rose to the starting tailback job just three weeks ago, made plenty happen in the game for the Knights as well. He ran five times for 26 yards on the first drive of the game and caught the first touchdown of his career to put UCF up 7-0. It was the 12th time in 13 games that the Knights have scored first in a game.
And when Murray raced 36 yards for a touchdown midway through the third quarter, it put UCF up 17-0 and seemed to secure the victory what with the way the Knights' defense was playing. For Murray, the day was especially meaningful considering that he missed all of last season with a knee injury and started this season as an H-back.
``It means a lot to me, but I couldn't do it alone out there. The offensive line did a great job of putting a hat on people,'' said Murray, who ran for 94 yards in the game. ``Not being able to play last year just made me hungrier and I couldn't wait to get back on the field and help the team out.''
From there, UCF's defense made the 17-0 start stand up. The Knights battered Padron most of the day, limited the long runs by C-USA rushing leader Zach Line (94 yards) and forced the two turnovers on interceptions by Robinson and senior safety Reggie Weams.
Hallman, UCF's leading tackler all season and one of the key emotional leaders in the locker room, said he could see UCF's smothering defensive performance coming considering the focus the team had all week. He liked that the Knights' defense was on the field at the end of the game, swarming SMU under and making life miserable. And Hallman knew that he would be leaving Bright House Networks Stadium on Saturday as a champion once again.
``I think it's the first time a team has been held to (seven) point in a Conference USA championship game, so that's huge for our defense,'' he said. ``But this started earlier in the week. We had the best week of practice that I've ever seen as a team since I've been here. I knew this was coming. I knew as long as the offense put up points, we were winning this game.
``Getting this championship is extremely satisfying, but we still have one more goal to meet,'' Hallman added. ``We really want to get this bowl win and leave this program on top.''
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John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.