Athlon previews the Friday night matchup between UCF and Ball State.
The coaching carousel hasn’t come to a complete stop, but it appears Ball State will hold on to Pete Lembo for at least one more season. Lembo built a winner at Lehigh and Elon before jumping to the FBS ranks, where he has compiled a 15–9 record in two seasons at Ball State. This season, he has guided the Cardinals to a 9–3 mark that includes wins over two AQ conference schools, Indiana (for the second straight season) and South Florida. Ball State lost two games in league play, by two points to Kent State and two points to Northern Illinois — the two teams that played for the league title.
Lembo’s counterpart in this game, UCF’s George O’Leary, is on the tail end of a career that has seen him win 111 games in 16 seasons as a head coach (eight at Georgia Tech, eight at UCF). The Knights are 9–4 in 2012, with losses to Tulsa (twice), at Ohio State and vs. Missouri. O’Leary has won six games or more in Conference USA in five of his eight seasons in Orlando.
Beef ‘O’Brady’s Bowl – UCF (9–4) vs. Ball State (9–3)
Date and Time: Dec. 21 at 7:30 p.m. EST
Location: St. Petersburg, Fla.
When UCF has the ball:
For a team with some quality skill-position players — most notably quarterback Blake Bortles and tailback Latavius Murray — the Knights struggles at times to move the ball (seventh in the league in total offense). They do a good job, however, converting yards into points. UCF ranks second in the league and 27th nationally in scoring (35.2 ppg) because it does three important things well: win the turnover battle (16th in the nation at 0.85 per game) convert third downs at a high rate (47.1 percent), and score touchdowns in the Red Zone (40 on 56 trips).
Bortles, who won the job last year as a redshirt freshman, gives UCF a dual-threat at the quarterback position. He’s only netted 205 yards rushing, but he had two games with over 60 yards rushing and ran for seven touchdowns. Murray rushed for 1,035 yards and 14 touchdowns despite missing three games early in the season with a shoulder injury.
When Ball State has the ball:
Ball State had little trouble scoring points throughout the 2012 regular season, but the offense is facing some issues in preparation of the bowl game. Most notably: Who is going to play quarterback. Keith Wenning, a second-team All-MAC pick, is still recovering from a broken ankle suffered against Ohio on Nov. 14. Kelly Page replaced Wenning but suffered a concussion in the next game, a win over Miami (Ohio). His status won’t be known until days before the game. The next option is Kyle Kamman, a freshman walk-on. The coaching staff is hopeful Wenning will be ready to play.
With uncertainty at quarterback, expect the Cards to lean heavily on tailback Jahwan Edwards. The bruising sophomore — he’s 5-10 and 230 pounds — has rushed for 1,321 yards and 14 scores and ended the regular season by averaging 148.6 yards in the final six games. Edwards should have success against a UCF defense that struggled to stop the run late in the year. The Knights gave up 200-plus rushing yards three times in their final four games, including 290 to Tulsa in the C-USA Championship Game.
This is far from the sexiest matchup of the bowl season, but this should be a very good game between two teams that haven’t received enough attention nationally. The running game is going to be key for both teams. UCF went 9–0 in games in which it rushed for 150 yards or more and 0–4 when it failed to hit the 150 mark. That’s pretty telling. Ball State needs a big performance from Edwards, who should be able to punish the UCF defense. With issues at quarterback, don’t be surprised if the North Carolina native gets the ball 30 to 35 times. And don’t be surprised if he leads Ball State to the win.
Prediction: Ball State 30, UCF 24
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