COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Quarterback Blake Bortles believes that his Central Florida team has athletes to play on even terms with No. 14 Ohio State on Saturday.
Another famous, or infamous, former Floridian agrees.
“They’re a Big Ten talent,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said of UCF. “There’s no question there’s people on that team at certain positions that are as good or better than our (guys). They have five or six NFL players on their roster. That tells you what we’re getting ready to face. We’d better be ready. This is going to be a brawl.”
In the first meeting between the schools, both enter with 1-0 records. Each scored 56 points last week in battering Mid-American Conference opponents from Ohio, the Knights whipping Akron 56-14 and the Buckeyes rolling over Miami University 56-10 in Meyer’s first game on the sidelines after coaching Florida to two national titles in six seasons, 2005-10.
The Knights of coach George O’Leary, coming off a 5-7 season in 2011, are brimming with confidence.
“I think we can run with them, I think we can run with anybody,” said Bortles, who threw for three touchdowns last week in his first collegiate start. “We’re a team full of athletes. Everybody’s going to go out there and give it their all.”
Linebacker Jonathan Davis echoed that sentiment.
“I feel like all the athletes we have can match up with the athletes they have over there,” he said. “We’re just going to see who works harder.”
The Buckeyes are favored by 18 points and playing before a partisan crowd of more than 105,000 at Ohio Stadium.
“Some people take it personally, but we have no problem being the underdog,” UCF safety Kemal Ishmael said. “If they want to match us up with Ohio State and they think we’re going to lose, you can’t do nothing about that.”
The Buckeyes have had it drilled into them all week that UCF is a step up in competition from the opener, in which Ohio State got off to a sluggish start but ended up putting up gaudy numbers.
Quarterback Braxton Miller was 1 for 7 for 5 yards passing in the first quarter but ended up 14 of 24 for 207 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He also rushed for a school record by a quarterback with 161 yards, including 65 on one play where he juked a defensive back and then raced by him.
Ohio State trailed 3-0 and could have been down at least 14-0 early. The scarlet-and-gray clad crowd was uneasy and even Meyer was wondering if his vaunted spread offense would ever find footing. At that point, Miller reassured him by saying everything would be fine and the Buckeyes would climb out of what he called their “deep, black hole.”
“We’ve just got to get a better start next time so it won’t be as stressful on the head coach,” Miller said with a grin.
Big plays were the Buckeyes’ best friend. They had nine pass plays for double-digit gains and eight runs of at least 10 yards. Of that total, eight plays picked up a minimum 20 yards.
So the Knights have been keying on preventing any lengthy dashes by Ohio State’s hurry-up offense.
“It’s just being fundamentally sound and eliminating as many big plays as you can,” defensive lineman Troy Davis said. “Staying on your keys, getting guys to the ball, that eliminates all that.”
Meyer stepped down from the Florida job late in the 2010 season, citing health and family considerations. He worked last season as a college football analyst for ESPN before taking the high-profile, high-pressure Ohio State job in November.
Some University of Florida fans remain angry that he left, apparently. An informal poll in the Knights’ hometown Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel this week indicated that roughly seven of 10 Gators fans were rooting for UCF — usually an afterthought to the big three of Miami, Florida State and Florida in the Sunshine State — to beat Meyer and Ohio State.
Meyer said he still loved the Gators. Besides, he’s got enough to worry about with his own team.
“We’re average right now. We’re playing a very good team that’s equal (to us) at some positions,” the blunt-talking Meyer said this week. “There’s certain positions that are average.”
He said his offensive line and short-yardage unit, linebackers and defensive line need to improve.
O’Leary, in his ninth year with the Knights, wasn’t offering much sympathy.
“(A Meyer-coached team is) always well-drilled, and I don’t think they’re playing with chopped liver — he’s playing with great athletes out there,” he said. “He utilizes them very well. He gets his good athletes the ball in space and lets them do the work.”
UCF will probably not have starting running back Latavius Murray due to a shoulder injury. Miami Hurricane transfer Storm Johnson in his stead.
Neither team can go to a bowl game after the season.
NCAA sanctions for recruiting violations within both the football and basketball programs led to one-year postseason bans for both UCF programs just days before the Knights began fall practice. The school is appealing the bowl ban.
Due to major NCAA infractions stemming from players trading signed memorabilia for cash and tattoos from the subject of a federal drug probe, the Buckeyes are banned from the postseason and cannot play in the Big Ten championship game. They did, however, find out this week that they can still win their conference division and take home a trophy.
“I’m glad we can,” wide receiver Evan Spencer said of the Big Ten possibilities. “But, at the same time, we were going to go undefeated either way.”
The Knights aren’t in agreement with him on the latter point.