ORLANDO — This season UCF has won games and eventually climbed into the Top 25 with a brand of football that was, at times, outright tougher than that of its opponents.
But for each of the past two weeks, the Knights haven't dominated as they inch closer to their first BCS bid. A better word to describe them probably is fortunate.
"You hope it doesn't come down to that, but if it comes down to that you've got to lean on your players that have ability to make plays — whether it's defense or offense — and so far that's happened," coach George O'Leary said. "But you can't bank on that all the time. Eventually it's going to catch up with you."
The 17th-ranked Knights (8-1, 5-0) still sit atop the American Athletic Conference as they prepare to play Rutgers (5-4, 2-3), a team that has largely underachieved, at home tonight.
After starting 4-1, Rutgers has dropped three of its last four games, including a 52-17 loss at home to Cincinnati.
The Scarlet Knights have been banged up in recent weeks, but coach Kyle Flood said they were mending as best they can.
"From a health standpoint you're always on the edge this time of year," Flood said. "… You're always an injury from being younger than you are."
A conference title may be a pipe dream at this point, but the Scarlet Knights can become bowl eligible with a victory. It would put them in position to play in a bowl game for the eighth time in nine years.
One thing UCF is hoping to lean on over these final three weeks of the regular season are the senior class' memories of a disappointing 5-7 campaign in 2011 that saw it endure six losses by seven points or fewer.
They've won five games by that margin this season.
O'Leary said this year's team is more skilled at quarterback, has better playmakers and a more capable offensive line, which has helped it be on the favorable side of tight games.
Senior offensive lineman Justin McCray believes the close scrapes helped the team grow.
"I think the experience, especially on the offensive side, is great because we have a lot of players that have just played a lot of games," he said. "We know how it feels, especially with the 2011 year, being in all those close games and not coming out on top. We know how to just find a way to find victory."
Though he's not a senior, a lot of that mettle has come from quarterback Blake Bortles. The junior followed a rocky outing in a 19-14 win against Houston with one of his best — a career-high 403 yards and four touchdowns — in a 39-36 win against Temple last week.
Bortles has completed 70 percent of his passes in back-to-back weeks. Rutgers ranks ninth in the American in pass defense, giving up 328 yards per game.
O'Leary said as nerve-racking as the past two games have been, he doesn't need to say much to focus his team.
"They know," O'Leary said. "They know that they came that close to not doing what they wanted to get done out there. And I think it's great when you don't have to tell them that."
If playing to stay on track for a BCS bid isn't enough for UCF, the Knights have a small revenge motivation. The lone meeting between the schools was in the 2009 St. Petersburg Bowl when Rutgers, coached by Greg Schiano, downed UCF 45-24 at Tropicana Field.