- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Blake Bortles stood on the podium, holding his trophy as the offensive MVP of the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, a broad smile on his face as he soaked in the moment.
A throng of UCF fans -- a group that accounted for a small fraction of the crowd at kickoff but was all that remained as the final seconds ticked away in the fourth quarter of the Knights’ 52-42 win -- roared its approval, chanting “One more year, one more year,” in hopes of convincing Bortles to delay his ascension to the NFL.
“Not many people outside of us believed we could win,” Bortles said. “But we showed the country what UCF is all about.”
It was the perfect underdog story.
UCF was here only by virtue of the American Athletic Conference’s lame-duck status as an automatic-qualifier league, a 17-point underdog to high-flying Baylor.
Bortles was here only because so many bigger schools passed on him, failing to find the potential that UCF’s George O’Leary embraced.
But UCF won handily, scoring the first 14 points of the game, then fighting back once Baylor tied it in the third quarter. And Bortles, who has become one of college football’s hottest commodities among NFL scouts, made his mark on a national stage. He completed 20 of 31 passes for 301 yards and accounted for four touchdowns.
It was, perhaps, a coming-out party. But for UCF, it wasn’t a surprise.
“You don’t fluke your way to 52 points,” offensive lineman Jordan McCray said.
The Fiesta Bowl wasn’t simply about looking the part or pulling off the upset, McCray said. UCF wanted to dominate.
For weeks, the Knights heard the narrative that they weren’t good enough, that Baylor would cruise. They embraced the doubters, lugged an oversized chip on their shoulder from Orlando to Arizona, and changed the narrative on the field.
“I thought it was probably a fun game to watch in the stands, but it wasn’t fun on the sideline,” O’Leary said of the back-and-forth affair. “But I thought it worked out really well.”
If Baylor was supposed to be the establishment and UCF the upstart, however, neither team embraced their roles.
UCF’s offensive line was dominant. It didn’t allow a sack, and the Knights ran for 255 yards, milking the clock down the stretch. The Knights enjoyed a nearly 10-minute edge in time of possession.
That ground game was led by Storm Johnson, the Miami transfer who couldn’t find playing time with the bigger-name Florida school. He scored each of UCF’s first two touchdowns, then disappeared after a costly fumble, then emerged again to deliver the final blow with a 40-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown.
Then there was Bortles, who outdueled Baylor’s Bryce Petty in a showcase for two of the nation’s top quarterbacks. After a sluggish first half, Bortles was 9-of-11 for 118 yards and had two touchdowns in the second.
“It’s awesome to be a part of this,” Bortles said. “We weren’t highly touted guys out of high school. We came to UCF on a mission.”
Baylor was on a mission, too, but those plans were derailed early. The Bears never led, and while the offense played its part in the highest scoring Fiesta Bowl in history, racking up 550 yards, the defense couldn’t get a stop and a series of mistakes doomed any comeback bid. Baylor had a whopping 17 penalties for 135 yards, and Petty’s interception in the end zone midway through the second quarter squandered a potentially game-changing scoring opportunity.
The Baylor locker room was somber afterward, with some players slamming fists but most retreating into the corners, headphones tuning out the buzz surrounding them.
“They weren’t doing nothing extra,” defensive lineman Terrance Lloyd said. “I don’t believe they were more physical than us. We just didn’t execute on defense.”
But that was just the point, McCray said. UCF didn’t need to do anything extra, didn’t need to sneak up on Baylor or get the lucky bounces to win. The Knights were simply the better team, even if the rest of the country hadn’t been ready to believe.
“We’ve played a lot of good football teams throughout the years, did well, proved our legitimacy,” O’Leary said. “But the win today is national exposure.”
What comes next is a mystery. Whether the win is a springboard toward sustained national prominence, whether Bortles remains for one more year, whether the respect UCF earned Wednesday carries through a long offseason -- that’s all to be decided another day.
On Wednesday, the Knights wanted to enjoy a moment no one else believed would come.
“All I’m worried about now,” Bortles said, “is getting this trophy back to Orlando and celebrating.”
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