ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - Arkansas State and UCF certainly have a lot in common heading into Saturday’s AutoNation Cure Bowl matchup.
Both are led by their defenses, have developing high-octane offenses and have made the postseason after impressive turn-around seasons.
The Knights are 6-6 and back in the bowl mix after coming off a frustrating 0-12 season in 2015. Arkansas State finished the season strong by winning seven of its final eight games and earning a share of the Sun Belt Conference after beginning this season 0-4.
“That doesn’t happen unless a whole teams buys in and are working together,” first-year UCF coach Scott Frost said of Arkansas State. “I think that’s probably happened on both campuses. So this is exciting game for both teams and I think both teams have some similarities.”
The two programs are meeting in the second Cure Bowl, which was started to bring more awareness to breast cancer. But with this year’s matchup, it could easily be dubbed the “Comeback Bowl.”
Both coaches have praised their respective programs for their resolve. The Red Wolves (7-5) appeared on the verge of having their run of bowl appearances come to an end. But they will be appearing in a school-record six straight bowl.
“It is hard to really explain just how proud of this group I am,” Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson said. “I don’t know really a way to get it across to you that makes a lot of sense. There just aren’t many teams that go through what we went through and then have the result that we had.”
Frost shares that sentiment after taking over a Knights program that fell on hard times under George O’Leary last season. He came in from Oregon with a new energy and excitement that produced results on the field.
Aside from a blowout loss at Michigan and a 17-point season-ending defeat at American Athletic Conference rival USF, the 6-6 Knights were a handful of plays from a possible 10-win season.
“We had a chance to win a bunch of games this year and we won enough to get to a bowl game, but I expect our young players to enjoy their success and use this as a springboard to keep on improving,” Frost said. “We’re on the right track and we’re going to keep taking steps in that direction.”
Some other things to watch in the AutoNation Cure Bowl matchup between UCF and Arkansas State:
SACK TANDEM: Arkansas State enters the game tied for 12th in the country with 37 sacks on the season, thanks in large part to the defensive end duo of senior Chris Odom and junior Ja’Von Rolland-Jones. Odom led the Red Wolves with 12 ½ sacks this season, while Roland-Jones - the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year - had 11 ½. Combined, the two had 36 tackles for losses for the season.
FRESHMAN SENSATION: Since taking over as the starter in the third game of the season against Maryland, freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton has been a stabilizing presence for the Knights. He is completing 60 percent of his passes and has a QB efficiency rating of 114.33.
RED WOLVES REBOUND: The Red Wolves enter the Cure Bowl having won at least a share of the Sun Belt championship in five of the last six seasons, but they’ve lost their last two bowl games. After opening this season 0-4, Arkansas State rebounded with a six-game winning streak and victories in seven of its last eight games to end the regular season.
EASY MONEY: Money Hunter had only one interception in the Arkansas State secondary this season, but the senior did what he knows best with it - returning it 46 yards for a touchdown in a win over New Mexico State.
IMPACT PLAYER: It seemed like a reach when the new coaching staff decided to move junior Shaquem Griffin from safety to outside linebacker this season. But after being named AAC Defensive Player of the Year it seems like a great decision. He has 11 sacks this season, which ranks him 12th in the nation. Griffin also ranks 10th nationally in tackles-for-loss with 19.
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