Dec. 31, 2010
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (UCFAthletics.com) - A UCF football program clearly on the rise as a powerhouse to be reckoned with nationally registered a landmark victory on Friday in the Liberty Bowl, beating Southeastern Conference power Georgia while registering the school's first-ever bowl victory.
When UCF sophomore safety Kemal Ishmael batted down a Hail Mary pass that seemed to hang in the air forever, it preserved No. 24 UCF's 10-6 defeat of Georgia and set off a wild celebration among the 8,000 Knights' fans who roared with noise inside the Liberty Bowl.
And the resounding opinion after UCF (11-3) became bowl champions for the first time ever was that the so-called sleeping giant is not only awake, but also breathing fire and ready to crush anything in its path.
``It's hard to express the emotions, but this football team has done everything since the beginning of the season, through the conference championship to this bowl game and I'm so happy for them and our program,'' UCF athletics director Keith Tribble said. ``But this is just a start for us. We've been building for a long time and now all of our hard work is paying off.''
Upon winning the game, UCF's players took turns hoisting the Liberty Bowl trophy high into the night air. The gong that rang again and again had to be a warning message to the rest of the country that UCF will be a power to be dealt with for years to come. The Knights rang the Liberty Bowl bell with so much vigor and force that the hammer on the trophy broke off and came back to campus in a different bag.
``I think this victory sends a message out to America,'' said UCF senior wide receiver Brian Watters, who had six catches for 57 yards and four catches for 33 yards on the game-winning drive in the fourth period. ``I just remember sitting in the hotel room and 79 percent of America didn't believe that we could beat Georgia. The other percentage was probably just our team. I believe it sends a big message about UCF's future players and gives us so much momentum going into next year.''
Doing something for a first time is never easy, and this first-ever bowl victory for UCF went down to the final seconds. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray heaved a pass into the end zone for 6-foot-4 superstar wide out A.J. Green, but Ishmael was there to make the game-saving play that is sure to live in the history of the program for years to come.
The Liberty Bowl crowd of 51,231 reacted wildly to the play - Georgia's side with moans and groans, while UCF's fans danced wildly in the stands. In somewhat of a surreal setting, raindrops started falling from the sky as UCF's reign began.
``This is just unbelievable. Somewhere there's a story being written about what a dream come true this is for me and our seniors,'' UCF senior end Bruce Miller, who had 1.5 sacks and eight tackles. ``We were down in the fourth quarter and we fought back so hard and then got some big defensive stops.''
Added senior safety Darin Baldwin: ``They thought they were going to come in here and just push us over. But we've got more heart than they do.''
Sophomore tailback Latavius Murray, the game's Outstanding Offensive Player and the MVP, scored on a 10-yard run with 9:01 to play to put the Knights ahead 10-6. And a defense that was dominant a couple of weeks ago in the Conference USA title game made it stand up. They held a Georgia offense that came in averaging 34.3 points a game to just two field goals and no touchdowns.
``We messed up some plays early in the game, but we hung in there and kept fighting and believing,'' said UCF head coach George O'Leary. ``This is so big for the program, so big for the guys and big for everybody from UCF.''
Freshman quarterback Jeff Godfrey capped a stellar first season on campus, helping the program win a C-USA title and the school's first bowl game. Let the comparisons to UCF legend Daunte Culpepper begin after he joined the school's lore. He completed 16 of 29 passes for 117 yards.
The Knights were in their fourth bowl game, having lost previously in the 2005 Hawaii Bowl, the 2007 Liberty Bowl and the 2009 St. Pete Bowl.
Remarkably, there were just nine points scored in the first three quarters of the game. It was the lowest scoring Liberty Bowl through three quarters since the 1979 game against Penn State and Tulane (6-0).
Georgia drove 61 yards on the first drive of the second half, but again had to settle for a Blair Walsh 42-yard field goal when the Knights got crucial pass break-ups from Ishmael and senior cornerback Justin Boddie. That 6-3 Georgia lead would be its final advantage of the game because they couldn't score against UCF's gritty defense.
``I just can't describe this feeling. We started the season wanting to win the conference championship and win a bowl game, and we accomplished both of those things,'' said senior defensive end David Williams, who had a sack on the final drive of the game. ``I kept telling our guys, `Don't forget (the) Kansas State (loss). We were determined to not let them in the end zone. We're a resilient team and we just kept on fighting.''
UCF appeared to have scored first for the 13th time in 14 games when Quincy McDuffie took the opening kickoff back 98 yards. McDuffie, one of only nine players in the nation to return two kicks for touchdowns, hit a seam and sprinted for an apparent touchdown. However, the return was negated by a holding penalty on UCF special teams ace Ronnie Weaver.
Georgia's first drive started at the 2-yard line following a 56-yard boot by UCF senior punter Blake Clingan, but the Bulldogs proceeded to march 95 yards in the next 15 plays. But the Knights stiffened up near the goal line, forcing Georgia to settle for a field goal that put the `Dogs up 3-0.
The Knights tied the game up 3-3 just before the half, but even that score was tinged with a bit of disappointment. UCF got an interception from linebacker Josh Linam and promptly moved the ball to the 6-yard line. But that's where the drive stopped after a spiked pass, an incompletion and a stopped scramble.
Nick Cattoi's 22-yard kick knotted the score at 3-3, but the Knights had to feel like they squandered several scoring opportunities. UCF had another great scoring opportunity minutes earlier set up by senior safety Reggie Weams' fifth interception of the season. UCF got the ball to the 6-yard line on the strength of five runs by Latavius Murray and 14-yard and 3-yard completions to Georgia natives Brian Watters and Adam Nissley.
But that drive ended when Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin didn't bite on a fake slant route and picked off Godfrey's lob pass in the end zone in front of Kamar Aiken. It was Godfrey's second interception of the first half, a surprising happening considering that he was one of the most accurate and efficient passers in the country this season.
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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.