ORLANDO, Fla. -- They did it with a running back who nearly quit the team.
With a teenager at quarterback.
With a defense eager to make a statement.
With a group of players who have spent their entire careers reading headlines not about them, but about Florida, Florida State and Miami.
To say this UCF group is special would be selling them short. The way they played in a 17-7 win over SMU in the Conference USA championship game Saturday, the Knights proved they are eager to shed their underachiever label and build something lasting here in Orlando.
“Traditions start this way,” UCF coach George O’Leary said.
Yes, traditions start with back-to-back winning seasons -- a first since O’Leary became coach in 2004.
With a second Conference USA title in four seasons. With a player like Jeff Godfrey, a true freshman quarterback who has done more than anybody expected.
With a player like Latavius Murray, who went from nearly leaving the team because he was homesick in 2009 to game MVP after gaining 94 yards and a touchdown.
With a player like cornerback Josh Robinson, burned so many times this season on the deep ball but who got the ultimate redemption Saturday with a key interception and two huge pass break-ups.
Those three players return next season, along with a host of other young studs. The depth is there moreso than after the 2007 championship. UCF followed up that season with a 4-8 record.
Doing that again is unacceptable if you want to make noise in this state. Yes, UCF is losing a dynamic senior class, one that established something for the rest to follow. But the Knights have plenty to build on, and that has left them anticipating more.
“I see us back in this same position for the next three years,” said Godfrey, who went 15-of-19 for 167 yards with a touchdown. “We just have to work hard to do our assignments and just get the job done.”
Inconsistency has wracked this program, but perhaps the Knights are turning the corner. When asked if there was something different that O’Leary did this season to get his team going, he slyly said, “Yes, Jeff Godfrey.”
Godfrey broke Jacory Harris’ passing record in Miami-Dade County, but was overlooked by the major players in this state because he was only 5-foot-11. He chose UCF because he would be allowed to play quarterback, and because he wanted to help put this program on the map.
Though he went into the season behind veteran Rob Calabrese, it was clear immediately that he was the future of this program. On Saturday, he helped UCF win the time of possession battle, especially with some of his scrambles to keep drives alive.
When it was all over, he leaped into the stands, soaking in the adoration and admiration. Fans have embraced his poise and leadership, and even have printed up with T-shirts that have the slogan, “In Godfrey We Trust.”
But on this afternoon, the story was the stifling UCF defense. Much of the talk going into the game was about the SMU run 'n' shoot. UCF linebacker Derrick Hallman said his teammates wanted to put a stop to that.
Boy, did they do that. UCF sacked Padron five times, hurried him six times, broke up six passes and intercepted him twice. Robinson got a crucial interception late in the third quarter with SMU in UCF territory and down 17-0.
After scoring a touchdown to close it to 17-7, SMU had its chances to try to score again. But Padron threw another interception, this one by Reggie Weams in the middle of the field.
SMU's final drive started with 3:41 to go. But Padron had several passes broken up in the end zone and was sacked three times on the drive. Fittingly, he was sacked on the Mustangs’ final play.
“Their front seven is pretty impressive,” said Padron, who went 18-of-34 for 220 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Aldrick Robinson, his top receiver, was limited to just three catches for 43 yards and a score.
That makes four years in a row that the best defensive team has won the C-USA title. UCF held SMU to its lowest point total since coach June Jones’ first season in 2008.
“This game wasn’t about their offense,” Hallman said. “This game was about us. We wanted to set a trademark out there and let people know how good we are.”
Now UCF has to keep that going.