On the night before their bowl game, the players for Central Florida watched on TV as UNC knocked off Tennessee in a controversial overtime finish in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
Tennessee appeared to win at the end of regulation, before the referees determined one second remained on the clock, allowing the Tar Heels one last chance to kick a game-tying field goal to send the game into overtime.
Brendan Kelly couldn’t help but think back to that as he anxiously watched from the sideline a day later on New Year’s Eve as his UCF Knights appeared to close out Georgia in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis. With the Knights leading by four, a desperation third-and-19 pass fell incomplete in the end zone and the clock ran down to zero. Before the Knights could celebrate, two more seconds were put back on the clock, giving Georgia one last play.
“It was nerve-wracking as can be,” said Kelly, a former standout football player for Shoreham-Wading River (’08). “One play and it can go completely the other way.”
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray dropped back and unleashed a Hail Mary toward the end zone, where UCF sophomore Kema Ishmael slapped the ball harmlessly to the ground, preserving the first bowl win in program history, 10-6.
“We accomplished really everything we had in mind at the beginning of the season,” Kelly said. “It’s the reward. It’s the reason why you play.”
At UCF this season, Kelly, a redshirt sophomore listed at 6-3, 234, was a part of the best season in program history. The Knights won 11 games — more than any other Florida team — were conference champions and finished ranked 24th in the coaches poll and 25th in the BCS.
Last season the Knights played in the St. Petersburg Bowl, where they suffered a disappointing 45-24 loss to Rutgers. Kelly said it took a year for the team to learn what it’s like playing in that environment.
“Last year we weren’t into it as much as this year,” he said.
Following the bowl victory Kelly returned to Long Island this week for some time off before the grind toward another season begins as soon as he returns to campus.
A running back who has floated between different positions this season, Kelly saw minimal action in the Knights’ bowl win, playing mostly on special teams. It didn’t keep him from savoring the moment.
Last year as a freshman Kelly began the season as the starting fullback. When his playing time decreased, it made him realize how much harder he needed to work to play at that level. Kelly called it a “humbling experience,” one that has him looking forward to even better things next year in his junior season.
“When you’re winning nothing else matters,” he said. “You’re all going toward the same goal, so that’s the big picture.”
Kelly played in all 14 games for UCF and carried the ball 35 times for 138 yards and a touchdown. Most of the team’s carries went to junior Ronnie Weaver, a former walk-on, sophomore Latavius Murray and freshman quarterback Jeff Godfrey. The Knights patched together their running attack after last year’s leading rusher, Brynn Harvey, sprained his knee during the spring before the season.
Kelly still envisions himself as a fullback, although he’s ready to play any position the coaches put him at going forward.
“I’m just going to keep working hard, going strong and play wherever they need me at,” he said. “That’s all I can do is not really care where I play and play my hardest at whatever spot.”
Kelly’s former coach at Shoreham, Bill Ashton, traveled to Memphis to watch him play. Kelly said it was great to see Ashton, who played a pivotal role in Kelly’s development both and on and off the field as a teenager.
“He’s done tremendous amounts for me and regardless of what happened to him in Shoreham, he’s still going to be my high school coach. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Ashton lost his job as the head coach of Shoreham following the 2009 season. He’s now an assistant at Bay Shore.
Kelly ran for 4,936 yards with 52 touchdowns as a Wildcat and was a three-time All-County player. He was the Division IV Player of the Year as a senior.