By Shehan Jeyarajah
Scottsdale, Ariz. — After nearly a month off the field, No. 6 Baylor football (11-1, 8-1) has made the trek to the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale to play No. 15 University of Central Florida (11-1, 8-0) in the 43rd annual Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
The matchup brings together the winners of the Big 12 and American Athletic conferences respectively in the first ever BCS appearance for both of these teams. The Fiesta Bowl also features two high-powered offenses led by quarterbacks who will soon be playing on Sundays in the NFL.
Baylor junior quarterback Bryce Petty ranked as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in college football during the season. In 12 games, Petty threw for 3,844 yards and accounted for 4,036 yards of total offense and 41 all-purpose touchdowns while throwing only two interceptions. No other quarterback has the same combination of touchdowns and low interception numbers in all of football.
“I think that playing against Bryce gives me more motivation to have a good game,” UCF junior quarterback Bortles said. “Bryce has had a phenomenal year. Anytime I get to play against someone as highly touted and successful as Bryce Petty is, it makes me want to put forth my best game.”
Bortles is a highly-rated prospect in himself. The junior accounted for 3,280 passing yards and 27 all-purpose touchdowns for the Knights in their AAC championship season. His signature performance came against No. 8 Louisville when he out-dueled Teddy Bridgewater with a game-winning touchdown drive with only 23 seconds left in the game.
“Playing against Blake Bortles will be fun,” Petty said. “As a competitor, I want to be up with the best. I think playing UCF, and him being on the other sideline, that’s being around the best.”
Both Petty and Bortles are expected to be top draft picks in the 2015 NFL Draft if they return for their senior seasons.
While Petty is the headliner, Baylor brings in one of the most productive offenses in the history of FBS football. The Bears average 624.5 yards per game, a mark that leads all of college football. The next best team records almost 75 fewer yards per game. The Bears also lead college football with 53.3 points scored per game.
“It’s a great challenge to defend Baylor,” UCF safety Brandon Alexander said. “They’re the top offense in the nation. They have a great quarterback, great running backs, a good offensive line, anything and everything possible.”
Alexander emphasized the mismatches that Baylor’s speed creates.
“It’s all about getting lined up,” Alexander said. “It’s a hard task to sell because not a lot of teams run a fast ball. Being out there, it’s all about making sure you get to your spots as quickly as possible because the next play is in like 15 seconds, and that’s a ridiculous pace for a football team. That’s what Baylor has that a lot of people can’t keep up with. We have to come out here and be sure to match their tempo.”
Baylor returns senior wide receiver Tevin Reese after a four-game hiatus due to a dislocated wrist. The Bears averaged 718.4 yards per game and 63.9 points in games that Reese played in their entirety. That’s compared to 493.0 yards per game and 38.4 points in games that Reese missed part or all.
“It’s almost like a second Christmas having Tevin back,” Petty said. “He stretches the field like no player I’ve ever seen before. That big play threat to a touchdown almost every time he has a ball works a defense. It’s going to be fun.”
UCF also has an extremely potent offense led by Bortles.
“Bortles is a very patient quarterback,” Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon said. “He’s very smart, he doesn’t panic. Most quarterbacks, when things start breaking down, they panic. He’s an NFL style quarterback. He doesn’t have a problem checking the ball down to his running backs, or taking a hit to deliver to ball downfield. Whatever he can do to help his team, he will do.”
Junior running back Storm Johnson broke the 1,000-yard plateau this season for the first time in his career, and leads an underrated UCF rushing attack. The Knights average 432.0 yards per game, which ranks them as a top 50 offense in college football.
“We run the ball well, we have great skill position guys, but Blake brings us all together,” UCF offensive guard Justin McCray said. “He’s a great quarterback, great player, and I’m glad he’s on our team.”
No. 6 Baylor football will take on No. 15 UCF in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. at 7:30 on New Year’s Day. The game will be nationally broadcast on ESPN.