ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Blake Bortles threw for three touchdowns and ran for another to lead Central Florida to a 38-17 victory over Ball State in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl on Friday night.
Bortles threw first-half TD passes of 7 and 5 yards to Latavius Murray, who also scored on a 2-yard run.
That helped the Knights (10-4) build a 21-point halftime lead and coast to victory in their final game as a member of Conference USA.
Bortles had a 6-yard TD run and threw for 272 yards to become UCF’s first 3,000-yard passer since 2002. He also led the Knights in rushing with a career-best 80 yards on nine carries.
Bortles completed 22 of 33 passes without an interception, and his three TD passes were a career-best and tied the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl record.
Ball State (9-4) was hoping to finish with at least 10 wins for the third time in school history. However, its high-powered offense sputtered while being held to a season-low point total.
Keith Wenning threw a 7-yard TD pass to Willie Snead early in the second quarter, but the Cardinals didn’t get into the end zone again until Snead scored on a 16-yard reception with 5 minutes remaining.
Wenning was 22 of 34 for 217 yards and two TDs for Ball State, which had a six-game winning streak snapped before an announced crowd of 21,759.
Central Florida, which will move into the Big East next season, rebounded from an overtime loss in the Conference USA title game to finish with double-digit victories for the third time since stepping up to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Knights also won 10 games in 2007 and 2010, when they were Conference USA champions.
The Knights’ loss to Tulsa in the Conference USA title game kept them close to home for the postseason. Instead of heading to the Liberty Bowl for the second time in three years, coach George O’Leary and his players settled for a 100-mile trek west from Orlando to Tropicana Field, the home of major league baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.
O’Leary also brought his team to St. Petersburg in 2009, losing to Rutgers by three touchdowns. Friday night’s victory improved the 66-year-old coach’s record to 4-5 in bowl games, including a 2-3 mark with UCF.
Ball State’s first bowl appearance since 2008 is the latest step in an impressive turnaround under coach Pete Lembo, whose team suffered early losses to Clemson, Kent State and Northern Illinois before winning six straight down the stretch to put themselves into a position to fill the Big East’s slot in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s game because the league didn’t have enough bowl-eligible teams to meet its commitment.
The Cardinals beat two teams from BCS conferences in the same season for the first time, defeating Indiana and South Florida in consecutive weeks. They had the MAC’s second-most productive offense at 471.3 yards and 35 points per game and won four times by scoring the winning points in the final 2 minutes or overtime.
But with UCF dominating time of possession, Ball State never really had an opportunity to get its high-octane show going.
The Knights held the ball for nearly 13 minutes of the opening quarter, compiling a 159-15 advantage in total yardage. By halftime UCF had run 42 plays and gained 299 yards to build its lead to 28-7.
Jahwan Edwards rushed for 89 yards on 14 carries for Ball State. Snead had seven receptions for 78 yards.