Teams that were in drastically different positions a year ago will wrap up their seasons on the same field when NC State takes on UCF in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl. Less than a year removed from its Fiesta Bowl triumph, the Knights are looking for their fourth straight postseason win while the Wolf Pack are back in a bowl game a season after going winless in ACC play.
It’s been quite the run for UCF (9-3) under head coach George O’Leary. A win over NC State would give the Knights their fourth 10-win season over the past five. Although it didn’t come with another prime bowl invite, UCF did defend its American Athletic Conference title, finishing 7-1 and claiming a share of the crown along with Memphis and Cincinnati.
The Knights are still reveling in last season’s 52-42 win over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl and have won their past three postseason games overall. This also will be their third appearance in the St. Petersburg Bowl. UCF lost to Rutgers in the 2009 St. Petersburg Bowl and beat Ball State in the ‘12 edition.
On the other side, Dave Doeren has NC State (7-5) back in a bowl game after more than doubling his win total from his 3-9 debut season in Raleigh. The Wolfpack went 0-8 in the ACC last season and got off to another tough start this fall with four straight losses. But they turned things around late, winning three of their last four including a 35-7 thumping of rival North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
NC State’s last postseason appearance came in 2012 when the Wolfpack lost to Vanderbilt in the Music City Bowl. That game was played in the Commodores’ hometown of Nashville, Tenn., while this game in St. Petersburg, Fla., is just down the road from Orlando, UCF’s home.
This will be the third matchup between these two programs, with each winning on the other’s home field. The most recent meeting took place early in the 2010 season when NC State beat UCF 28-21 in Orlando.
NC State vs. UCF
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 26 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: UCF -2
NC State’s Key to Victory: Establish the Run
In his first season with the Wolfpack, Florida transfer quarterback Jacoby Brissett has put together a solid season. He has 22 touchdown passes and just five interceptions, but this offense has been most successful when the emphasis has been on running the football. Brissett is second on the team with 498 yards rushing, one of four players with at least 282. Shadrach Thornton leads the way with 811 yards (5.5 ypc) and nine touchdowns, 271 of those coming in back-to-back wins against Wake Forest and North Carolina. In NC State’s three ACC wins the Wolfpack had more than twice as many rushing yards (871) than passing (335). In their five conference losses, the split was 606 rushing vs. 1,004 passing. Dave Doeren runs a spread offense, but this NC State offense has been at its best employing the old-school approach of simply trying to cram the football down your opponent’s throat. Whether it will work against UCF’s stout rushing defense (5th in FBS) remains to be seen, but given the results, you certainly can’t fault the Wolfpack for at least trying.
UCF’s Key to Victory: Play to Your Strength
Blake Bortles isn’t the only player missing from last season’s Fiesta Bowl championship team, but he and 1,100-yard rusher Storm Johnson are arguably the two biggest losses on offense. Yet, the Knights successfully defended their conference title and are on the verge of another 10-win season. A pretty good defensive team last season, George O’Leary’s unit has taken things to a whole different level this fall. UCF finished 2013 29th in the nation in total defense. This season the Knights enter this game ranked third, behind only Clemson and Penn State. They have been difficult to run on (97.4 ypg, 5th) and have allowed just three teams (Missouri, UConn and East Carolina) to score 30 or more points. UCF has forced 27 turnovers (18 INTs) and features one of the nation’s top defenders in senior linebacker Terrance Plummer. Sophomore Justin Holman has done a respectable job replacing Bortles at quarterback and the Knights have experienced playmakers at wide receiver, but this team has been able to build on the success of last season behind a stout defense. UCF’s strength (stopping the run) seems to play into NC State’s (running the ball), so as long as the offense puts some drives together and takes care of the ball (28 giveaways), the Knights shouldn’t need many points to pick up their 10th win of the season. Of course that’s what happens when you are giving up fewer than 18 per game.
Former UCF quarterback Blake Bortles is just up the road toiling for the Jacksonville Jaguars, while his Knights continue to take care of business. George O’Leary has put together a program with staying power, even if it’s in a non-Power 5 conference. This Knights team is built around defense, which should prove to be a tough test for NC State’s run-heavy approach. It’s not the Fiesta Bowl in primetime, but UCF’s postseason success continues as the Knights shut down the Wolfpack in their de facto home game at Tropicana Field.