Dec. 1, 2007
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - UCF junior Kevin Smith has run through 13 teams for 2,448 yards this season. Now all that stands in his way is a Hall of Fame rusher who hasn't played college ball in 19 years.
Smith had 284 yards and four touchdowns on Saturday as Central Florida beat Tulsa 44-25 for the Conference USA championship. He moved into second place behind Barry Sanders on the NCAA's single-season rushing list, and still has one game left, UCF's Dec. 29 Liberty Bowl appearance.
As he had all year, the 6-foot-1, 211-pound junior downplayed his gaudy numbers.
"I'm expected to be back there and make the right cut at the right time," Smith said. "You can't run up the sideline without a hole. My guys gave it to me, and I tried not to let them down."
Then, perhaps his biggest understatement: "Coach gives me the ball a lot."
Smith on Saturday also set the NCAA all-time single-season record in season rushing attempts with 415, 12 more than Marcus Allen had at USC in 1981. Allen had been ahead of Smith in season rushing yardage, but the junior passed him with a six-yard carry in the third quarter. Smith had 24 carries for 161 yards at halftime, and piled up even more with a 74-yard TD run in the fourth quarter.
"I have coached in the BCS, and I can guarantee you that he is as good as anybody in the country," Tulsa coach Todd Graham said. "No question about it."
It was the second time in three years the teams played for the conference championship. Tulsa (9-4, 6-3) won in 2005, but the Golden Hurricane's star quarterback Paul Smith made too many mistakes this time.
Paul Smith passed for 426 yards, his third 400-yard game this season, on 28 of 55 completions, but threw three interceptions. Two were in the second half, and each one happened inside or near the end zone.
"They play as well as anyone we've played -- physicality, speed, strength," Paul Smith said.
UCF led 31-23 at halftime, but couldn't stop Paul Smith early. The Golden Hurricane, the country's top offense with 548 yards a game, rolled up 376 yards and 13 first downs. The Knights let Smith slip out of several third-and-long situations with long completions over the middle, including a 29-yarder to Trae Johnson on third-and-12 that set up Tulsa's first score.
But the Knights clamped down in the second half, pressuring Smith into Tulsa's third-worst offensive outing of the season. UCF used the same blueprint when the teams met in the regular season, picking off four Smith passes in a 44-23 win.
"A lot of it is they've got some really, really explosive guys up front, and I think that's the key to their defense," Graham said.
Down 37-23, Tulsa stayed alive when Paul Smith found Brennan Marion for a 33-yard completion on fourth down to the Knights' 3-yard-line. Despite four chances at point-blank rage, Tulsa couldn't score until it turned the ball over on downs and tackled UCF QB Kyle Israel for a safety.
Knights coach George O'Leary saved a touchdown in the second quarter after Paul Smith ran in an eight-yard draw. The Golden Hurricane lined up for the extra point, but O'Leary challenged, saying Tulsa had 12 players on the field. The review showed he was correct, and Tulsa came away without any points when Smith was intercepted by Johnell Neal at the 5-yard-line.
Cornerback Joe Burnett scored UCF's first TD on an 83-yard punt return. It was the school's first since the conference title game last year, when he ran one back 68 yards.
The real offense was coming from the Smiths. Tulsa's senior Paul turned in his 13th straight 300-yard game after never having one before this year.
Kevin Smith's four touchdowns gave him 30 on the season, fourth-best in history behind Sanders (39), Boise State's Brock Forsey (32) and Louisiana Tech's Troy Edwards (31).
Smith is now 180 yards behind Sanders, and averages 188 a game. After getting little recognition, the chase and Smith's nationally televised performance might nudge Heisman Trophy voters who held onto their ballots to push him higher.
"Kevin's been special every game, I think from the first to the twelfth, and hopefully people recognize that," O'Leary said. "I think this game went out over the nation, and they saw a guy that comes out and plays like he's supposed to play."