Dave Sittler: TU takes first round in big-boy matchup with UCF
BY DAVE SITTLER World Sports Columnist
Sunday, November 18, 2012
11/18/12 at 5:47 AM
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Original Print Headline: TU mans up in round one against UCF
Are you ready for some big-boy football?
That was the hype leading up to Saturday's showdown between Tulsa and Central Florida at H.A. Chapman Stadium.
This critical Conference USA contest, we were told, wasn't going to be for the timid. It would feature teams that mirrored each other, particularly with their smash-mouth, no-nonsense, old-style approach.
A bunch of big boys going mano a mano. And may the biggest, baddest, toughest mano win.
So with the league's giants going eyeball-to-eyeball - while also eyeing host rights for the C-USA championship game - the drama centered on when we'd learn which of these stud outfits blinked first.
The fight nearly went the distance before TU's defense finally stared down UCF's offense one more time. It wasn't until only 2:27 remained in the tense contest that the Golden Hurricane was assured its 23-21 lead would stand as the final score.
After more than 56 minutes of trading punches, the issue was settled when UCF quarterback Blake Bortles' desperate fourth-down pass sailed too high for his receiver, falling harmlessly out of bounds.
In many ways, it was a bummer that this compelling, back-and-forth game had to end. It had lived up to its billing so well that every one of the nearly 20,000 spectators in the stadium and thousands more watching on TV were dreaming of a rematch.
Holy Batman, guess what? That just might happen.
It'll be the same Bat-teams, same Bat-stadium in two weeks if TU and UCF take care of business this week in their regular-season finales.
No matter what happens at Southern Methodist, TU (9-2, 7-0 C-USA), has already clinched the West Division title. And even with a loss to the Mustangs, it would take a strange series of events and some crazy math to prevent the Hurricane from hosting the Dec. 1 conference championship game on its home turf.
If UCF (8-3, 6-1), beats Alabama-Birmingham this weekend in Orlando, the Knights will be back living on Tulsa Time on the first Saturday in December. The stakes in the rematch will be for the right to represent the league in the Dec. 31 Liberty Bowl as C-USA champion.
UCF undoubtedly wants a second crack at the 'Cane. The Knights certainly played their big-boy role well enough to believe they could change the final score if they are back in T-Town in a fortnight.
But coach George O'Leary's team might be careful what it wishes for. The TU club it sees the second time around might not be the gracious host it played Saturday, with miscues that helped the Knights take a 14-10 halftime lead and kept them close throughout.
TU gift-wrapped one touchdown for the Knights on a poorly thrown pass that was easily picked off and returned 76 yards for a score. And the Hurricane's special teams gave away four points when an extra point and a chip-shot field goal were blocked.
The fact the Hurricane didn't wilt under the pressure of the game's high stakes or from its own mistakes should only embolden the resolve of a team that hasn't backed down from adversity through 11 games.
"This team has been showing their toughness all year," TU coach Bill Blankenship said. "This is one of the most mentally tough teams I've ever been around. These guys have been resilient. They just are unflappable."
And it isn't just the veterans who have bowed up during tough times. Keyarris Garrett was a prime example of how several of TU's young pups can also play with the big boys.
Garrett added to his breakout sophomore season with three touchdown receptions. The 6-foot-4, 207-pound Garrett, who saw minimal action a year ago, flashed his versatility on his trio of TDs - he blew past a defender on a 70-yard bomb, broke two tackles and powered through a defender into the end zone on a 21-yard catch and run and capped the TD hat trick by out-jumping two defenders on a 13-yard lob.
"That's a young buck and he's growing up," linebacker DeAundre Brown said of Garrett. "He's going to be nice."
Brown and his veteran defensive mates long ago went from boys to men. Their experience allowed them to run the game plan to such perfection that defensive coordinator Brent Guy raced 40 yards down the TU sideline high-fiving everyone within reach after UCF finally blinked when Bortles' final pass fell harmlessly on TU's sideline.
"That's the best part of coaching," Guy said of his group's performance. "We played like a veteran team today that rose to the challenge."
A bunch of big boys who didn't blink.
UCF's Troy Davis gets called for pass inteference on TU's Willie Carter. BRETT ROJO / For the Tulsa World