ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — If it seems like Central Florida and East Carolina have produced some memorable matchups in recent years, it’s for good reason.
Aside from annually producing some of Conference USA’s closest games — with all but one meeting since 2008 being decided by more than seven points — over the past four seasons, three times the winner of matchup of division mates has helped one of them reach the league title game.
ECU (3-2, 2-0 C-USA) enters Thursday night’s matchup seemingly on that path again, and has won four of the last five meetings with the Knights (2-2, 0-0), including a 38-31 win last season. It is trying to improve its league mark to 3-0 for just the third time since 2001.
Awaiting the Pirates, though, is a UCF team that is not only coming off a tough home loss to Missouri, but has also gotten healthy at the right time with starting running back Latavius Murray expected to return for the first time since injuring his shoulder in the season opener.
Though his offense has struggled at times without Murray, Knights coach George O’Leary said he likes its progress. UCF’s offense is third in C-USA, averaging 30.3 points per game. ECU’s second-ranked defense is giving up just 24 points per outing.
“If you look at the conference and the amount of points given up and the amount of points scored, we’re right about where we normally are, which I think is the number one thing you look at, as far as what you do when you have the ball in your hands and what they do when they have the ball in their hands,” O’Leary said.
ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said being timid is not an option against a UCF defense that is the league’s stingiest, surrendering 21.5 points per game.
“The areas of emphasis this week are to play with no hesitation while also aggressive and smart,” he said. “It was a message we began to focus on last week and would like to keep doing this week. We don’t want turnovers, but at the same time we still want the team to continue to be aggressive. We need to play smart with no hesitation.”
That message could just as easily be coming out of the UCF locker room.
O’Leary has been looking for consistent leadership to emerge on both sides of the ball all season as his team looks to make a final C-USA title game before heading to the Big East in 2013.
Senior receiver Rob Calabrese said there is no better time for that to happen than now.
“Obviously you’ve got to be mentally tough to be a football player. You’ve got to take coaching and you’ve got to understand what needs to be done,” he said. “This is conference play so this is the most important thing for us. We’re treating every game from now on as the conference championship. So as a group of seniors, as a group of players, we need to prepare ourselves to win.”
Ultimately, offensive leadership must come from quarterback Blake Bortles. The sophomore posted his first game without an interception to go along with two touchdown passes in last week’s lost to Missouri. But he also took a season-high three sacks.
O’Leary said again this week that he remains comfortable with him as the starter. And this would not seem like the week to do much tinkering opposite an ECU defense that will present a new, 3-4 look.
It’s on offense where the Pirates might be more unpredictable.
“It’s going to be typical of what we’ve seen this year, no huddle and a lot of different variations as far as formations,” O’Leary predicted.
McNeill said he’s more worried about how his offensive line confronts a UCF defense that is always active.
“Our offensive line had a rough game against North Carolina two weeks ago, but bounced back very well against UTEP and didn’t allow any sacks,” he said. “They will be tested this week as UCF sends a lot of blitzes and mixing up the fronts throughout the game.”
While he concedes that every conference game is important, UCF senior defensive end Cam Henderson said it won’t be on the Knights’ mind Thursday night.
“Last year is last year and we’ve put that behind us. We’re a totally different team this year,” he said. “Coach O’Leary has us in a good mind frame. We’ve just got to go out and take care of this game.”
Follow Kyle Hightower Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower.