SMU Loses Conf. USA Championship; Accepts Bowl Bid

By FRED GOODALL
|  Saturday, Dec 4, 2010  |  Updated 11:45 PM CDT
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SMU Loses Conf. USA Championship; Accepts Bowl Bid

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Quarterback Kyle Padron #2 of the SMU Mustangs celebrates a touchdown.

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Two Conference USA championships, four bowl bids, a pair of 10-win seasons and a strong belief that more good things are on the way.

Central Florida has come a long way under George O'Leary, the former Georgia Tech coach who's led a dramatic turnaround since taking over a struggling program and going 0-11 in his first year on the job with the Knights.

"We're on the rise," senior defensive end Bruce Miller said after Latavius Murray rushed for 94 yards and scored two touchdowns Saturday, helping UCF (10-3) claim its second league title in four seasons with a 17-7 victory over Southern Methodist.

The Knights also earned a trip to the Liberty Bowl, where they'll most likely face Georgia on New Year's Eve.

"George is an old-school coach. He does what you have to do to win championships," SMU coach June Jones said of the 64-year-old O'Leary. "Kids get better playing for him because he doesn't re-invent the game every week. You've got to be better than them to beat him."

SMU accepted an invitation to play Army in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30 -- a game that will be played in their own stadium. The game is ususally played at TCU, but the school is renovating its stadium and moved the game to SMU for this season only.

Freshman Jeff Godfrey completed 15 of 19 passes for 167 yards, including a 5-yard TD throw to Murray to finish a long scoring drive in the opening quarter. Murray also scored his 10th rushing TD of the season, breaking a 36-yard run to make it 17-0 in the third quarter.

SMU (7-6), which was trying to win its first league championship since sharing the Southwest Conference crown in 1984, scored on Kyle Padron's 22-yard pass to Aldrick Robinson early in the fourth quarter.

Padron was 18 of 34 for 220 yards passing, but he also was intercepted twice and sacked five times. He drove his team into UCF territory in the closing minutes, only to have the Knights stop the threat on downs with their final sack.

"We knew it would be tough," Jones said. "We just weren't good enough."

UCF won for the eighth time in nine games, including three in a row since a 31-21 loss to Southern Mississippi ended a brief stay in the Top 25.

The first national ranking in the program's 30-year history lasted one week, yet accentuates just how far the Knights have come since going winless in 2004 -- O'Leary's first season, and the year before UCF joined Conference USA.

The Knights also won the league title in 2007 and have appeared in the C-USA championship game three times in six seasons.

"I don't compare them because they're both conference champions," O'Leary said, addressing a question about his other UCF team that matched the school record of 10 wins, first achieved in 1990.

"Both teams have good players, but this team's senior class did a great just job -- not just on the field, but off the field," O'Leary added. "The seniors did a great job controlling the young guys off the field and helped me get things with the young kids."

One of those players was Godfrey, the nation's top-rated true freshman passer. His 78.9 percent completion percentage on Saturday was a record for a C-USA championship game.

"It really feels great to win it this year as a freshman, and I hope to win it again the next three years," Godfrey said. "We set this goal at the beginning of the year, and I wanted to make it happen for the seniors and the team."

Jones has led an impressive turnaround of his own over the past three years at SMU. Finally showing signs of recovering from being hit with the NCAA death penalty for rules violations, the Mustangs are headed to bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1983 and 1984.

UCF set the tone for a dominating performance, marching 73 yards in 13 plays following the opening kickoff to take a 7-0 lead on Godfrey's short TD throw to Murray. Nick Cattoi's 29-yard field goal made it 10-0 on the final play of the first half.

The Knights held the ball for more than 13 minutes of the first quarter, and the combined 10 points for the teams were the fewest scored in an opening half in the six-year history of the C-USA championship game.

Murray's second touchdown finished an eight-play, 85-yard drive that extended UCF's lead to 17 heading into the fourth quarter.

The 6-foot-3, 221-pound running back was voted the game's most valuable player. He carried 22 times while sharing the workload with Ronnie Weaver and Godfrey, one of the nation's top dual-threat quarterbacks.

SMU actually outgained the Knights 317 yards to 311, but had difficulty finishing drives.

Darius Johnson had nine receptions for 105 yards for the Mustanges, while Zach Line rushed for 94 yards on 18 attempts.

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