UCF playing for pride, UTEP for bowl bid in finale
By KYLE HIGHTOWER
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Central Florida coach George O'Leary didn't need any prompting or questions to get him started during his news conference this week.
With a disappointing 4-7 record overall and 2-5 mark in Conference USA play heading into Friday night's season finale against UTEP, O'Leary knows exactly what sentiment is out there about the Knights just a year removed from a league title and their first-ever bowl victory.
"It's been a very frustrating season," O'Leary said. "We've lost six games by a total of 31 points. That's one possession or one defensive stop really. I think our players have played really hard, but we have tried to build our program on not making mistakes, no penalties and not beating yourself, and we really haven't gotten that accomplished this season."
Expectations were soaring in the preseason with the Knights coming off a school-record 11 victories in 2010.
Now the record book is something the Knights are trying to avoid.
With a 0-6 record on the road will leave UCF at home for bowl season first time since 2008, which was also the last time it endured an eight-loss season.
UCF hasn't ended a season with four straight losses since O'Leary's first team went 0-11 in 2004.
For a senior class that is leaving as the most successful in school history with a pair of bowl appearances, salvaging one more victory is the only focus.
"As a senior it just means going out on the highest note possible," senior tight end Adam Nissley said. "Being able to go out with a win would be the next best thing without being able to go to a bowl."
Getting one last victory isn't going to be easy for the Knights, even after outscoring opponents 166-33 at time this season.
UTEP (5-6, 2-5) needs just one win to become bowl eligible and are sort of a mystery for UCF, having only faced it twice - the last time a 58-13 loss in El Paso.
The two meetings with the Miners are the fewest UCF has had with any other C-USA foe.
Miners' coach Mike Price said they are just happy to still be in bowl contention after being outscored by opponents 333-305 this season. It would be UTEP's fourth bowl appearance under Price in eight seasons.
"It's unbelievable that we still have an opportunity to go to a bowl game," Price said. "As badly as we played (in last week's 57-28 home loss to Tulsa), and as poor as the score was, and as bad as we felt after the game - we still have a chance to go to a bowl game. That's what we're looking for."
UTEP will have to earn that win without senior safety TraVaun Nixon, who injured the PCL in his knee in the Miners' 57-28 loss to Tulsa last week and is out for the remainder of the season. He leads the team with four interceptions, but has been battling injuries all year.
Also on the mending table is leading passer Nick Lamaison. The junior sustained a groin injury against East Carolina and didn't play last week. Price said sophomore Carson Meger would make his second straight start if Lamaison can't go.
Meger "played pretty well (against Tulsa), just not good enough," Price said. "He's a competitor and tried as hard as he could. Sometimes that's all you can ask."
O'Leary said that even without extra bowl practices that he usually relies on to get younger players reps, he won't just throw people in to the game Friday for experience.
"We're playing to win," O'Leary said. "I'm gonna play with the people that brought us to the last game. The bowl is great for extra practices, but we're not eligible right now. We're gonna play whoever gives us the best opportunity to win that game on Friday night."
One thing to watch will be how the quarterback position is used on the Knights' side.
O'Leary began splitting game time between starter Jeff Godfrey and Blake Bortles several weeks ago and he said that would continue in the finale. He continued to call it Godfrey's starting job, though.
"It's Jeff's team and he'll be out there, and again both are doing some good things," O'Leary said. "...They're both leading the team. They're both handling the huddle very well ... we just can't be up and down, we have to put the ball in the end zone."
UCF senior linebacker Josh Linam said that no matter what happens Friday, his message to the underclassmen coming back is clear.
"Mostly it's just telling them to be accountable and don't let this ever happen again," Linam said. "Go out this offseason and work as hard as they've ever worked and don't accept anything less than a conference championship."
Updated November 24, 2011