8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Central Florida -1
Tampa is a lovely place to spend this time of year, which of course brings us to this year’s St. Petersburg Bowl from Tripicana Field featuring the North Carolina Wolfpack and the the Central Florida Golden Knights. It hasn’t been the easiest of seasons for North Carolina State (7-5, 3-5 in ACC), who have struggled in this, Dave Doeren’s first year in Raleigh. After getting off to a 4-0 start against some very questionable competition, reality smacked this team in the face; Doeren would see his charges proceed to drop five out of their next six contests, including four straight at one point, all in conference play. With the exception of posting 41 points in a fifteen-point loss against Florida State, the Wolfpack struggled to keep pace with most opponents on the scoreboard; in the other five games of that stretch, they managed a meager average of 15.8 points. Fortunately, NC State was able to circle the wagons and become Bowl Eligible with a pair of wins over the likes of Wake Forest (42-13) and bitter rival North Carolina (35-7) to close out the Regular Season. Doeren’s kids had no problems movig the ball in those contests, averaging a healthy 449.5 yards of total offense. Finally finding their legs in the running game proved to make a world of difference, particularly given their struggles in that regard over the previous six outings; the ‘Pack recorded 362 and 388 yards respectively in the final two games, surpassing the total from their previous five contests combined. So the question remains: is this a team that has finally figured things out, or are they simply beating the hell out of bad teams?
The tale of the rushing attack merits conversation, for surprise, surprise, when this team is able to run the ball they have found great success on Offense. During their four-game winning streak to open the season, North Carolina State churned out an average of 248.8 yards on the ground, leading to no fewer than 460 total yards, albeit against the likes of Georgia Southern (24-23), Old Dominion (46-34), South Florida (49-17), and Presbyterian (42-0). Exploding for 520 yards (116 rushing) against the defending National Champions was indeed eye-opening, but in hindsight that may have something to do with the Seminoles being a bit overrated on that side of the ball. Anyway, Doeren’s charges plummeted afterwards mainly due to the well runing dry in the running game; the Wolfpack rushed for just 113.2 yards over the following five outings on a mere 3.5 yards per carry. Part of the problem has been finding a reliable weapon out of the Backfield. All year Doeren’s has been looking for a Feature Back to carry the running game; NC State failed to record re a 100-yard rusher in each of their first ten games of the campaign. Tailback Shadraque Thompson finally broke through with 110 yards against Wake Forest, followed by 161 versus Norh Carolina, while versatile Quarterback Jacoby Brissett tormented the Tar Heels in the Season Finale with 137 rushing yards, a school record for a Quarterback. The Florida transfer has flourished in his first season as a starter, completing 59.9% of his passes for 2,344 yards (6.8 yards/attempt), twenty-two touchdowns and and just five interceptions. The 6-4, 221-lbs Junior is a load to bring down in the open field as well, rushing for 498 yards and three scores on 4.5 yards per carry. You need look no further then his coming-put party against the Seminoles to see the potential of this kid; Brissett completed 32-of-48 passes (66.7%) for 359 yards, three touchdowns with no interceptions, and rushed for another 38 yards and on thirteen carries, single-handily keeping the Wolfpack in the game.
Meanwhile, how do you top a 12-1 campaign culminating in a victory in the Fiesta Bowl? A trip to St. Petersburg may not sound like the greatest of consolation prizes, but given the circumstances, 2014 has been another successful season for the Golden Knights. Central Florida (9-3, 7-1 in AAC) had the unenviable task of replacing Quarterback Blake Bortles, who only went Third Overall in the NFL Draft. Transition under Center can be a very tricky proposition, but George O’Leary did a great job anyway, even if tonight’s starter Justin Holman wasn’t initially his first choice. That honor began with Pete DiNovo, who started the Knights’ 26-24 loss against Penn State in the Opener all the way over in Dublin, Ireland. Another loss in the following week at Missouri (38-10), spurred O’Leary’s decision to make a change, and the team has flourished for it; Since starting the term 0-2, UCF has won nine out of ten games, en route to capturing a second consecutive American Atheltic Conference Championship. Holman cemented his place in school history at the climax of his team’s AAC-clinching 32-30 victory at east Carolina on December 4th, completing a miraculous 51-yard Hail Mary to Breshad Perriman as time expired.
Holman completed 20-of-33 pass (60.6%) for 274 yards (8.3 yards/attempt) and that aforementioned epic touchdown, saving the Knights from a furious Pirates’ rally in which they blew an early 23-6 lead. Ever since a dreadful four-interception performance in a loss at Connecticut, Holman has played efficiently, completing 63.9% of his passes for an average of 235.8 yards (8.5 yards/attempt), seven touchdowns and three interceptions. Central Florida has in turn won all four of those contests by a margin of points. He may not be the second-coming of Bortles, but he has shown promise; on the season, Holman has completed 59.0% of his attempts for 2,661 yards (7.8 yards/attempt), twenty touchdowns and thirteen interceptions. Fortunately, O’Leary’s Defense has afforded him the opportunity to develop at his own pace. On the campaign Central Florida has allowed a mere 16.5 points on 282.8 total yards, including 185.4 yards against the pass, and another 97.4 yards versus the run. Opposing rushers have found very little room to maneuver, gaining a scant 3.1 yards per carry. With the exception of the first and last games of the season, this team has relegated everyone they have faced below 400 yards, including a pair below 200 yards. Furthermore, they have racked up 37.0 sacks, and have proven adept at fonrcing turnovers; the Golden Knights have logged 27 takeaways this far, including eighteen interceptions, seven of which have courtesy of Defensive Back Jacoby Glenn, tied for fourth-most in the nation. And it’s a good thing that he and his teammates have made so many plays, for they have helped offset the Offense’s malady of errors (28 turnovers).