Friday, December 21, 2012
Pregame: Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl
By Brian Bennett
Ball State (9-3, 6-2 MAC) vs. Central Florida (9-4, 7-1 C-USA)
WHO TO WATCH: UCF kick returner/receiver Quincy McDuffie. The 5-foot-10 McDuffie is one of the fastest men in the FBS and poses a threat to score every time he touches the ball. That's especially true on kickoff returns, where the senior has six career touchdowns, including three this season (and two in the same game versus Marshall). He led the nation in kickoff return average at more than 34 yards per attempt. While McDuffie doesn't often get involved in the offense, he did run for three touchdowns last month against UAB. Ball State would be wise to kick the ball out of the end zone as much as possible.
WHAT TO WATCH: Quarterback play for both teams. Ball State's Keith Wenning missed his team's final six quarters with a right ankle injury that required surgery, though he did return to practice this week. His backup, Kelly Page, dealt with a concussion late in the season. UCF's Blake Bortles had a great year but went just 14-of-32 in the Knights' overtime loss to Tulsa in the Conference USA championship game. When right, both quarterbacks can slice up a defense. They have very similar numbers in passing yards (Bortles threw for 2,787, Wenning for 2,878) and touchdowns (both have 22).
WHY TO WATCH: These are two mid-major teams that could play with a lot of big boys. Ball State won its final six games and lost only to Clemson, MAC champion Northern Illinois and MAC runner-up Kent State -- three teams with a combined record of 33-5. The Cardinals also beat two AQ teams in Indiana and South Florida. UCF very nearly won the C-USA crown, and its losses came to Ohio State, Missouri and Tulsa (twice). The Knights beat Georgia in the Liberty Bowl game two years ago. Ball State is still looking for its first bowl victory after coming up short five times since 1989. Though this is a football game in a baseball stadium (Tropicana Field), the score could resemble a basketball game. Both teams are averaging 35 points a game with well-balanced offenses. Cardinals coach Pete Lembo could soon become the latest MAC coach to get scooped up by a major program.
PREDICTION: UCF 38, Ball State 30. Both teams will move the ball extremely well, but the Knights had one of the better defenses in C-USA while Ball State ranked 103rd in the nation in total defense. A poor run defense will doom the Cardinals as UCF's 222-pound back Latavius Murray rumbles for 150-plus yards. The Knights also own an advantage in playing only 120 miles from campus and should have more fans in the stands than the school from Muncie, Ind.