Herd must contend with UCF defense
HUNTINGTON -- When Conference USA announced its players of the week Monday, it so personified the Central Florida program.
The top offensive player was a UCF running back. The top defensive player was a UCF defensive back.
If the Knights of coach George O'Leary get their way Saturday night, Marshall will see more of the same when the East Division rivals clash at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Kickoff is at 8 p.m., with CBS Sports Network airing the contest.
Latavius Murray, returning from an injury in the season opener against Akron, ran for a career-high 192 yards and two touchdowns in the Knights' 35-17 win at Memphis. He scored on an 83-yard run, the second-longest in program history.
Cornerback A.J. Buoye was named the top defender for two critical plays in the second half.
Memphis was down just 14-10 and driving for a go-ahead touchdown when Buoye intercepted a Jacob Karam pass at the UCF 7-yard line and returned it 32 yards. The Knights then drove for a touchdown and a 21-10 lead.
The Tigers drove into UCF territory again, but Buoye put the game away by scooping up a fumble and returning it a school-record 79 yards for a touchdown.
The result kept the Knights (5-2, 3-0) atop the East Division entering the contest with the Thundering Herd (3-4, 2-1). Murray's performance, in particular, reinforced what type of contest the Herd expects - and it's not finesse.
"They like to run the ball, and they don't really try to hide it," said linebacker Billy Mitchell. "They line up and show you where they're going to run and say, 'We're bigger than you, we're stronger than you, stop us.' And for our defense, we want to take that challenge, show them we can stop the run."
So far, UCF's defense is having the better season, leading C-USA in both scoring defense (22.0), total defense (352.9 yards per game), pass efficiency rating (114.9) and third-down conversions (32.3 percent). The Knights have allowed the fewest touchdowns (18) and has the second-best turnover margin (plus-6).
But really, the same theme resonates through the Knights' defense, and has since O'Leary reshaped the program after a winless 2004 season.
"It's just a tough, tough game, a real tough game," said offensive tackle Garrett Scott. "Not even that they have, like, better players than us, it's not even that. It's just that we go at it head to head, and it's a really physical game."
Safety Kemal Ishmael, like Bouye a senior, recovered a fumble on the UCF 2-yard line at Memphis, a week after his overtime interception won the game against Southern Miss.
Back to the offense, Brynn Harvey is still around in a backfield that features Murray and Miami transfer Storm Johnson. At quarterback, sophomore Blake Bortles has caught on so well that coaches moved Jeff Godfrey to wide receiver.
Bortles has gone four games without throwing an interception, a streak of 147 attempts. He throws enough to average 228.3 yards per game, and he is third in efficiency behind Marshall's Rakeem Cato and Austin Brown of Alabama-Birmingham.
As much as UCF likes to show its muscle, its play-action game also impresses Herd defenders.
"I think they have a quarterback that kind of fits the system, a quarterback that doesn't make mistakes," said end Alex Bazzie. "A quarterback that delivers the ball where [only] his receivers can get it. He kind of takes control of that system.
"And when you face a quarterback that doesn't make mistakes, that quarterback is very deadly."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.