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Bulls host Knights

Quarterback Matt Grothe and the No. 5 Bulls are looking to defeat UCF for a third consecutive season. ORACLE PHOTO/JOSE LOPEZ JR.

No. 5 South Florida will host the Central Florida Knights at noon Saturday in what could be the final meeting in Tampa between the teams.

As an exit requirement for leaving Conference USA and joining the Big East in 2005, the Bulls had to schedule a four-game series with the Knights. Next year’s game in Orlando is the last scheduled meeting between the schools and USF has made no attempt to extend the series.

The teams have met only twice before – with the Bulls winning both times – but the proximity of the schools and the loyalty of their fans has created an intense rivalry, garnering the nickname “the war on I-4.”

Central Florida (3-2, 1-1 C-USA) is coming off a 52-38 loss to East Carolina and will face a hostile environment Saturday, with USF (5-0, 1-0 Big East) expecting the second sellout crowd in school history at Raymond James Stadium.

While Central Florida has struggled at times this season, USF coach Jim Leavitt refuses to underestimate the Knights. After escaping last week’s road game against Florida Atlantic with a 35-23 win, the coach knows that meetings between in-state rivals are always intense.

“You can throw out the records,” Leavitt said. “I know it will be a game that will be a battle all the way through. I think our guys will play hard and it will be a heck of a ballgame.”

USF receiver Amarri Jackson thinks the reason for the elevated intensity brought on by in-state match-ups is a result of the familiarity the opposing teams have with each other.

“It’s a bunch of in-state players who probably played each other in high school,” Jackson said. “You definitely want to win that battle because we’re not that far from each other, so we don’t want to hear all the (trash talk).”

The primary concern for the Bulls this weekend will be containing UCF running back Kevin Smith. The junior is leading the nation in yards per game this season (172) and his 11 rushing touchdowns are tied for the most in the country. On Saturday, Smith – who has rushed for more than 100 yards in every game this season – will take on a Bulls defense that has yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this year.

“Smith is a real good running back,” USF defensive end George Selvie said. “He runs hard and he’s going to fight. Facing him is going to be tough for our defense, but we take it as a challenge.”

While USF has respect for Smith and the Knights, some players on the team are going into the game with a confidence that can only come with a 5-0 record.

“Their running back is great but they haven’t played us yet,” USF defensive lineman Richard Clebert said. “I think we have better athletes. They have a lot of great players but I think we have a better team all around. I feel that way about every team – not just UCF.”

With the Bulls playing their first game as a top-five team, they know to expect the best performance UCF has to offer. Last week at Florida Atlantic, the Bulls heard chants of “overrated” from a crowd for the first time. USF probably won’t hear that chant at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday, but the Knights will certainly be looking to define their season with a win against the No. 5 Bulls.

“Ever since I’ve been here, all we’ve been has been the underdogs,” Selvie said. “Now we have the targets on our backs and the role has been flipped. It would make (UCF’s) season to beat us, so we just have to go out there and play football.”