GLENDALE, Ariz. — Baylor knew Central Florida didn’t come to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl just to enjoy the desert and mountain scenery.
The Bears understood the Knights were too good, too disciplined and too well coached to be regarded as a heavy underdog.
Their hunch was dead on.
After the No. 15 Knights scored the game’s first two touchdowns, the No. 6 Bears began Wednesday night battling out of a hole. They stayed there most of the night as UCF pulled away for a 52-42 win before 65,172 fans at University of Phoenix Stadium.
“I’m extremely disappointed in myself,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “I don’t think I did a good job. I don’t think we were prepared like we needed to be prepared. We caught a football team that was hot. They played extremely well early and got into us. We tried to play catchup the whole game.”
Following their first Big 12 championship, the Bears (11-2) hoped to follow up with their first BCS bowl win. But they ran into a Knights’ squad that played like it was burning to prove that it shouldn’t be underestimated after sweeping through the American Athletic Conference with an 8-0 record and finishing the season with a 12-1 record.
UCF junior quarterback Blake Bortles showed why he’s projected to be a high NFL draft pick if he chooses to come out early as he hit 20 of 31 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns. The 6-4, 230-pound Bortles also ran for a career-high 93 yards and a touchdown.
“He was everything everybody said he was,” Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon said. “He lived up to the hype. He executed every chance he had, every moment he had. But we didn’t make the plays when our number was called. Guys weren’t tackling as well and were busting coverage. A lot of things went wrong.”
Bryce Petty countered with a solid night for the Bears as he hit 30 of 47 passes for 356 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for three scores. Lache Seastrunk rushed for 117 yards, but the Bears still spent most of the night trying to catch up with the inspired Knights.
A Baylor defense that had done so much in the team’s championship season struggled through its worst game of the season. With Storm Johnson rushing for 124 yards and three touchdowns, the Knights’ balanced attack did nearly anything it wanted as the 52 points were the most in school history against a ranked opponent.
The Bears didn’t help themselves as they committed a season-high 17 penalties for 135 yards.
“I can’t remember the time that we’ve had so many penalties in a game, without question,” Briles said. “I think we were fresh. I think we were physical. I’m not sure we played as intelligently as we could and have. A lot of that stuff is judgmental and stuff that’s out of our control. But you’ve got to life with what’s called out there and move on.”
Trailing 28-20 at halftime, Petty fired a 50-yard pass to Jay Lee before he was dragged down at the 1. Petty scored his third touchdown on the next play and then ran for the 2-point conversion to tie the game at 28 with 10:18 left in the third quarter.
But that was the only time the Knights didn’t lead all night.
The Knights quickly responded as Bortles spotted Jeff Godfrey for 38 yards to set up his 10-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman for a 35-28 lead with 5:38 left in the third quarter.
UCF pushed its lead to 42-28 when Bortles rumbled around the left side for a 15-yard touchdown run with 13:37 left in the game.
The Bears quickly answered as Petty hit Clay Fuller for 28 yards to set up Glasco Martin’s 9-yard touchdown burst up the middle. But the Knights answered again as Johnson blew around the left side and then made a sharp cut past Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon for a 40-yard touchdown run to push UCF’s lead to 49-35 with 10:26 left in the game.
UCF finished off its scoring with Shawn Moffitt’s 36-yard field goal with 4:44 remaining.
Baylor scored on Petty’s 9-yard pass to Fuller with 1:15 remaining, but it was far too late.
“I think a lot of that falls back on myself,” Petty said. “It’s about execution when you go out there. We’re not clicking, that’s something I have to take control of. It was hard on the offensive side knowing it could have been different if things would have been executed.”
With Bortles hitting Rannell Hall with touchdown passes of 50 and 34 yards, the Knights grabbed a 28-20 halftime lead.
The Knights looked much more inspired out of the gate than the Bears as they opened up a 14-0 lead after their first two possessions.
Winning the battle up front, UCF did it all on the ground on the first drive by moving 76 yards on six plays for the touchdown. Bortles got the Knights rolling as he faked to Johnson and rumbled 29 yards to the 45.
Later in the drive, Johnson busted loose for 23 yards before finishing it off with an 11-yard touchdown run.
Baylor’s first drive went nowhere as Thomas Niles sacked Petty for a 6-yard loss on third down. After Spencer Roth’s 33-yard punt, the Knights got great field position at their own 49 and Bortles fired a 34-yard pass to Perriman.
Four plays later, Johnson walked in for a 2-yard touchdown to put the Bears into a quick 14-0 hole with 7:46 left in the first quarter.
The Bears finally got their offense rolling when Seastrunk broke loose for 29 yards to UCF’s 8. Following a 7-yard pass to Jordan Najvar, Petty drove for a 1-yard touchdown to cut UCF’s lead to 14-7 with 3:49 left in the first quarter.
Then Baylor’s defense came up big on three straight possessions as Demetri Goodson and Eddie Lackey intercepted passes and Sam Holl recovered a fumble.
Goodson stopped a UCF scoring threat when he made a tremendous interception at the 4 after smothering Hall on a deep pass route over the middle.
After a 53-yard Roth punt, Holl tipped a Bortles pass and Lackey pulled it in at UCF’s 32.
The Bears took advantage of the turnover as Petty fired a 30-yard touchdown pass to Levi Norwood over the middle. Kick holder Brody Trahan bobbled the snap, but Baylor cut UCF’s lead to 14-13 with 8:01 left in the second quarter.
Baylor came up with its third straight turnover when Holl recovered Johnson’s fumble at UCF’s 19 after Jamal Palmer stripped him of the ball. But the Bears couldn’t take advantage of their good fortune as Brandon Alexander intercepted Petty’s errant pass in the end zone.
“We ran that play probably 10 times this year, and it’s worked every time,” Petty said. “That play is one you can’t force. Unfortunately, that was the turning point in the game. Turnovers in the red zone kill an offense.”
Hall delivered his first big play as he caught a short pass from Bortles along the left sideline and broke two tackles. After pulling away from Holl, the quick UCF receiver finished off a 50-yard touchdown reception.
The Bears quickly responded as Petty hit Corey Coleman with a 32-yard pass to UCF’s 17.
Petty finished off the drive with one of the most remarkable plays of the season as he scrambled out of the pocket and raced toward the goal line. He flipped over Jacoby Glenn in the end zone to complete the 13-yard touchdown run to cut UCF’s lead to 21-20 with 2:55 left in the first half.
But Hall responded with another big play as he caught a Bortles pass down the left sideline and rumbled in for a 34-yard touchdown to open up a 28-20 lead with 44 seconds left in the first half.
Baylor had one more shot to score in the first half when Petty hit Norwood for 21 yards to the 28 with one second remaining. But Aaron Jones missed his 45-yard field goal attempt wide right.