Photo by PHELAN M. EBENHACK
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The shortest bowl trip in America works for Brynn Harvey and the Central Florida Knights.
The 1,000-yard rusher grew up in nearby Largo and is ecstatic about the opportunity to finish a stellar sophomore season by leading UCF (8-4) against Rutgers (8-4) in tonight's St. Petersburg Bowl.
Harvey's high school graduation ceremony was held at Tropicana Field, home of major league baseball's Tampa Bay Rays and site of UCF's third bowl appearance in five seasons. He remembers playing his final prep road game at St. Petersburg Gibbs, where the Knights practiced this week.
"It's beyond anything I imagined could happen," the 6-foot-1, 205-pound running back said. "Especially after going 4-8 last year."
UCF won five of six down the stretch after a mid-October loss to Miami dropped the team to 3-3, the lone loss coming at No. 2 Texas.
Coach George O'Leary and his players couldn't be happier about staying close to home to face a Rutgers team that likely would have wound up in a different spot for the holidays if it hadn't lost two of three games to end the regular season.
"They're a typical Big East team," said O'Leary, noting the Scarlet Knights are a power running crew that plays stingy defense -- a lot like his team, which led Conference USA in several statistical categories.
"They're 8-4 for a reason," O'Leary added. "They're a good football team that's done a lot of good things."
UCF's 106-mile trek from Orlando to downtown St. Petersburg is the shortest distance any team is traveling for a bowl game this year, just under the 110 miles Southern Mississippi traveled for Sunday's New Orleans Bowl.
The Trop, which has hosted only a handful of football games since opening nearly 20 years ago, is configured to seat 28,000. Officials are expecting most, if not all, of them to be filled.
UCF sold out its allotment of 10,000 tickets, plus a couple of thousand returned by Rutgers, which is in a bowl game for a school-record fifth consecutive season under coach Greg Schiano. The Scarlet Knights are aiming for a fourth straight win.
Schiano, whose roster includes four starters and 11 players overall who are natives of the Sunshine State, doesn't feel playing in St. Petersburg provides much of a homefield advantage for Central Florida.
"The reality is as long as you have seven, eight, nine thousand people, they'll generate enough noise," the Rutgers coach said.
"It's going to be loud when we have the ball and it's going to be loud when they have the ball. One of the benefits of being away, defensively you get quiet because they're not going to drown out their own offense. So you can communicate defensively, where when you're home, you can't hear a thing. I can be screaming from the sideline and they don't move a muscle."
One of the keys for Rutgers will be containing Harvey, who's rushed for 1,077 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 games. He sat out UCF's loss at Texas with an injury, but has gained at least 129 in each of the team's three games since then.
Harvey's emergence after a freshman season in which he gained 519 yards and scored one TD, also eased the burden on Brett Hodges. The transfer from Wake Forest is 7-2 as the starting quarterback after coming off the bench the first two games of the season.
Hodges said the offense feeds off Harvey, who the senior describes as a quiet leader who runs every bit as hard late in the fourth quarter as he does on his first few carries of the game.
"Brynn probably says 10 words the whole game. ... He just gets the job done. Good play, bad play, he's kind of even keel about it," Hodges said. "That's how I am. We kind of feed off each other's calmness, and the offense sees that as well."
Offensively, Rutgers faces the task of moving the ball consistently against the defense that's fourth in the country against run (82.5 yards per game) behind unbeaten Texas, Alabama and TCU.
Central Florida, which has 37 sacks, also excels at pressuring the passer. Conference USA defensive player of the year Bruce Miller has 12 1-2 and Jarvis Geathers 11.
"The key for us is to play the best we can play," Schiano said, noting UCF's defensive line ranks with Pittsburgh's as the best Rutgers has faced this season.
"We have to take care of the football, number one. When we do that, we've been very effective. Number two, we have to tackle well, and probably the third thing, we have to protect the quarterback. If we can do those three things, we'll be able to play good football."