ORLANDO (AP) — When Latavius Murray has played well this season, it has usually meant good things have happened for Central Florida’s football team.
And for the fourth straight week, the path the senior running back plowed gave way to another dominant performance by the Knights.
Murray rushed for 155 yards and two touchdowns and caught another score as UCF rolled past Southern Methodist 42-17 on Saturday night.
Quarterback Blake Bortles also accounted for three touchdowns — two through the air and one on the ground — to help the Knights (7-2, 5-0) secure their fifth straight victory and remain on track to host the Conference USA championship game.
SMU (4-5, 3-2) fell back under .500 and deeper behind West Division-leading Tulsa.
“I always say it starts up front,” said Murray, who posted his third straight 100-yard game and fourth consecutive game with at least two scores. “I had to get the yards that were there and a couple of tough runs, too, but the big yards come when they open up holes and our line was doing that tonight. I’m taking what they’re giving me and making the most of it.
“UCF is on a roll. The defense is playing well, getting their offense off the field and our offense is putting points on the board.”
O’Leary said Murray, who also passed 2,000 rushing yards for his career, continues to be the biggest cog in an offense that racked up 396 yards against a SMU defense that entered the game leading the league in rushing defense and ranked third in total defense.
However, O’Leary said there are still some tweaks his team needs to make before he’ll even entertain league championship chatter.
“We had sporadic strides in the first part of the season,” O’Leary said. “A lot of it had to do with injuries. I think it is a bit more confidence (now) with each game on all three phases— offense, defense and the kicking game. We’ve still got work to do on tackling. As I said to the team, it was a good team win. But we’ll be practicing on Monday. That is how it works.”
The Mustangs briefly closed within four points in the second quarter, but never found consistency on either side of the ball.
After posting a career passing effort in last week’s win over Memphis, SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert was sacked three times and never got into a rhythm.
SMU’s offense entered Saturday’s game with some momentum with Gilbert coming off a career-high 353-yard passing effort in the Mustangs’ 44-13 victory over Memphis last week.
But the Knights’ defense kept the junior off balance throughout, holding him to just 16 of 29 for 133 yards. Gilbert and Zach Line both had rushing scores, but were otherwise limited to mostly short gains.
Line finished with 96 yards on 21 carries, his longest run of the game a 20-yard burst in the first half.
SMU coach June Jones said he was taken a little off guard with how well UCF was able to run the ball.
“That was a little bit surprising,” he said. “We weren’t anticipating they would be able to do that. But they do a good job with their scheme. They lean on you. They get a body on everybody and Latavius does a great job of finding creases. . I could have run through a couple of those holes.
“I thought we played well enough on defense, had we been answering the call on the other side of the ball to make it a competitive game.”
SMU’s struggles were on both sides of the ball, with its defense having no answers for Murray in the first half while the Knights built a 21-10 halftime lead.
Murray showed both his vision finding running lanes and his speed in the open field during the half, rushing for 124 yards and two scores.
That opened up the passing game as well, with Bortles adding a third score through the air and spreading out the Mustangs’ secondary. For the night Bortles completed throws to seven different receivers.
SMU rode Line on the ground as much as it could and kept the game close early. But the Mustangs went three-and-out on three of their six drives of the opening 24 minutes. Gilbert also struggled to connect with his receivers, going 9-for-20 passing and was sacked twice.
Gilbert did cap a solid, 15-play drive with a 4-yard rushing score to close the gap briefly at 14-10 midway through the second quarter. It was overshadowed, though, by two other long drives that ended in a punt and field goal.
The Mustangs’ special teams also had a miscue, with Kenneth Acker muffing a punt early in the second quarter. It was recovered by UCF and set up Murray’s first rushing score of the game.
With three games to play, O’Leary said he’s not taking anything lightly next week facing a 2-7 UTEP team. The Knights were taken to double-overtime against winless Southern Mississippi just last month.
“We play it one at a time,” he said. “I remember the last time we were there it wasn’t too nice to us. We’ll have our work cut out for us and let’s see if we can play one at a time and continue doing what we are doing.”
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