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Sunday, December 29, 2013
UCF defense relishes underdog role

By David M. Hale


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The film can be a bit intimidating, UCF safety Brandon Alexander said.

Baylor’s quarterback, Bryce Petty, is fast. He makes quick decisions, has a quick release and he can run.

The receivers are fast, too. They stretch the field, and the Bears' big-play potential is immense.

The running backs are quick, juking through traffic and breaking tackles for huge chunks of yards.

"Their offensive linemen are even fast,” Alexander joked.

Brandon Alexander
Defensive back Brandon Alexander says the Knights are ready for Baylor's high-powered offense.
This is the challenge for UCF’s defense, perhaps the most overlooked unit playing in a BCS bowl game this year.

Baylor’s offense is a whirlwind of precise execution, breathtaking tempo and dizzying speed. Central Florida’s defense is young, unheralded and, after Jim Fleming left to take over at Rhode Island, without its coordinator.

It’s no surprise then that the Knights’ defense isn’t getting much pre-game love or that they’re feeding off the litany of doubters.

“It’s an opportunity,” cornerback Clayton Geathers said. “We come with a chip on our shoulder, and we’re out to prove a lot of people wrong.”

They may be largely anonymous on a national stage, but the Knights have been solid defensively all season. UCF ranks 12th nationally in scoring defense, allowing less than 20 points per game, despite having just two seniors on its two-deep. It’s an athletic group that plays sound fundamentally, and if the rest of the world is overlooking the unit, Baylor isn’t.

“They’re very disciplined and have a lot of guys that can run sideline to sideline,” Petty said. “Just because we haven’t heard too much about them doesn’t mean they don’t have talent. It pops out on tape. They’re tough.”

Still, there’s no question the test UCF faces in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl is unlike anything it has seen before. Coach George O'Leary said Baylor’s tempo is something the Knights are used to from their days in Conference USA, but the skill with which the Bears execute is at another level.

“We ran a play every 18 seconds in practice the last two weeks, but it’s the quality of play you can’t simulate,” O’Leary said. “It’s quantity, but the quality isn’t there that Baylor is going to have.”

Baylor leads the country in scoring offense (53 points per game) and averages 50 yards more per game than any other team in the nation, while running nearly 83 plays per game -- a frenetic pace that will test the young UCF defense.

From a conditioning standpoint, Alexander said he’s confident the Knights are ready. The extra time to prep for Baylor has helped with the film study, too. Both will be key to slowing down the big-play Baylor offense, but the secret weapon, defensive lineman Thomas Niles said, will be UCF’s physicality, which he hopes will offset the Bears’ up-tempo style.

"You've got to disrupt their rhythm," Niles said. "You can't let [Petty] stay in one spot and be comfortable. If you let him sit there, he'll pick you apart."

Baylor gets healthy: As if UCF’s defense didn’t have enough to worry about, Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk said the offense is about as healthy as it has been all season.

Seastrunk said the extended downtime between the regular season and the bowl gave him a chance to get heal a groin injury that cost him nearly three full games late in the year.

“I needed the break to make sure my groin was all together and sealed up tight,” Seastrunk said, adding that he’s now 100 percent healthy.

Meanwhile, senior receiver Tevin Reese is set to return to the lineup, too. A wrist injury cost him the final four games of the regular season, but he’ll add another dynamic downfield threat, along with Antwan Goodley, for the Bears in the Fiesta Bowl.

“When you have two guys that can vertically stretch you, it’s tough [for the defense] and makes our job easier,” Petty said. “It adds another dynamic to an offense that’s already pretty explosive. For us, it’s like having a new toy.”

Easy intro for Ferraro: UCF’s new defensive coordinator is taking a hands-off approach to his first few days on the job.

Paul Ferraro was hired earlier this week to replace the departed Fleming, and while he’s in Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl, he’s working from a distance during practice.

“I’m really just observing, letting them do their thing and getting to know them a little bit,” Ferraro said. “It gives me a little bit of a jump [on 2014].”