NCF Nation: Jordan McCray

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.

[+] EnlargeTroy Gray and Terrance Plummer
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsTroy Gray and Terrance Plummer celebrate after the Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor.
“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.”

UCF's McCray brothers go out on top

December, 31, 2013
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Sunday routine is always the same, no matter how late the previous night’s game ended.

Jordan and Justin McCray wake up early and head to campus. They pop in the film of the previous day’s game, critiquing one another’s performance. Then they rush to the coaches’ offices, tracking down a graduate assistant to find out which one graded out higher for the game.

[+] EnlargeJustin McCray
AP Photo/John RaouxBlake Bortles (5) celebrates with Justin McCray. The UCF QB can tell the twins apart, but it's taken years to figure out how.
“We’re always the first ones in,” Justin said. “And we’re always giving each other a hard time.”

The sibling rivalry between the twin brothers goes back as far as they can remember. From the time they were kids, both wanted the upper hand -- a way to distinguish himself from his brother. Riding bikes, doing push-ups, chowing down at dinner -- everything was a competition.

“I’m pretty much a little bit better in everything than Justin,” Jordan joked.

Even now that both brothers are two-year starters on UCF’s offensive line, both team captains and All-AAC first-teamers, both on the verge of the biggest -- and final -- game of their college careers, the competition continues.

“They argue about who runs a faster 40-yard dash,” quarterback Blake Bortles said of his two offensive guards, “like it’s even relevant.”

After four years together, Bortles has found a foolproof way to tell his guards apart. Justin, the right guard, has a small freckle on his face. Jordan, the left guard, doesn’t. It’s not easily noticeable, but Bortles has studied them closely.

Justin is a little leaner, too. Jordan a bit thicker. Never mind that the media guide lists them both as 6-3, 310 pounds.

“I don’t think it’s a big difference,” Bortles said, “but after four years, that’s what I see.”

It’s tough to separate the McCray brothers, and that’s by design.

They’ve spent their lives competing, looking for an edge on a someone who’s a mirror image, but they’ve never wanted to be apart.

Coming out of high school, only a handful of schools offered both brothers a scholarship. A few were eager to take one and allow the other preferred walk-on status, but that was never a consideration for the McCrays.

[+] EnlargeJordan McCray
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJordan McCray says "Im pretty much a little bit better in everything than Justin."
“It was a package deal,” Jordan said. “That’s why we came here to UCF.”

UCF felt like home, Justin said. Their older brother, Cliff, played there, too. But the family ties didn’t mean an easy road to football success.

As freshmen, both brothers struggled to adjust. As sophomores, Jordan said he took a big step forward, while Justin lagged a bit behind. As juniors, it was Justin who progressed quickly. At each step, they measured themselves against each other.

This season, however, both have been exceptional, and they’re a big reason why UCF is playing in its first BCS bowl game.

“For them to compete with each other and want to top the other one, it makes you want to keep up with them, be in the race with them,” center Joey Grant said. “It’s fun to watch, to see them fight over who’s going to be better. That pushes the whole offensive line to be better as a unit.”

But if Wednesday’s Tostitos Fiesta Bowl is the culmination of a lifetime of competitiveness between the brothers, it’s also bittersweet.

Jordan and Justin both have NFL aspirations, but they realize it’s unlikely they’ll both find a home at the next level on the same team. Wednesday, most likely, will be the last time they play together.

It’s a weighty realization for two brothers who have never been more than a few feet apart on a football field, and they can’t ignore the implications. But they also know the moment was inevitable, and if the end was going to arrive, it couldn’t have been scripted any better.

“Just to be on this big stage at the Fiesta Bowl and playing a great team in Baylor,” Jordan said, “I wouldn’t want to go out any other way.”

UCF's 2010 class is full of surprises

February, 4, 2010
Of all the nonautomatic qualifying schools, Central Florida probably had one of the most surprising recruiting days.

Three players who were on UCF’s wish list actually signed and made the Knights' recruiting class the best in school history.

The day started with offensive guard Torrian Wilson switching his commitment from Louisville to UCF. Wilson, the No. 8 offensive guard in the country, took his visit to UCF this past weekend and it was enough to sway his pledge.

“I thought we were on the hunt,” coach George O’Leary said of Wilson. “I know he had committed to Louisville, but he visited last week and I thought we were in the hunt. I had a chat with him and he saw a lot of things that he liked.”

Overall, the Knights signed six offensive linemen, including Miami Southridge Senior High brothers Jordan and Justin McCray. UCF struggled mightily last season with 2.54 sacks allowed per game and a rushing offense that ranked 82nd in the country.

“I always like to have 15 of those guys sitting around soaking,” O’Leary said of his offensive linemen. “They’re the toughest position to play early. So you like to get guys coming in where you have some numbers there. Hopefully, after their first year, they get a chance to come in and get some sophomore or junior work and that’s about the time that they’re really coming into their own from a maturity standpoint.”

O’Leary said other surprises for the Knights included nabbing athlete Jordan Akins out of Union Grove High (Ga.), a school that’s heavily recruited by Georgia. Akins was a Georgia lean.

The Knights also secured offensive lineman Jose Jose, who was committed to South Florida. Jose, who made a switch right before he signed, is one of five signees from Miami Central High School, state semifinalists in class 6A this season.

Maybe the quickest contributor from Miami Central will be quarterback Jeffrey Godfrey, who is one of two new quarterbacks already enrolled in school. Quarterback has been a dicey position for UCF the past couple seasons, and with 2009 starter Brett Hodges gone, the position will be up for grabs in the spring.