Bruce Miller elevated his game in a big way this season, but even as a freshman there were signs he would be a very special player.
Now in his fourth year in the program, UCF's redshirt junior defensive end terrorized opposing quarterbacks this season with 12 sacks, good for third-best nationally, en route to being named the 2009 Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year. The 6-foot-2, 250-pounder has become the most feared defensive end in the league, finishing the regular season with 53 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and three pass breakups.
To understand the stellar numbers of Bruce Miller, you have to start with his teammates on the Knights' standout defensive line.
Having Torrell Troup (32 tackles, two sacks) and Travis Timmons (13 tackles, one sack) occupy three offensive linemen on every play helps to set up the defensive ends to only go against a single blocker for a good portion of the game. David Williams anchors the other starting defensive end spot (22 tackles, one sack), while Jarvis Geathers (11 sacks, seven hurries) speed rushes on passing downs. Darius Nall (12 tackles, four sacks ) picks up time as a valued backup defensive end.
This unit singled-handedly terrorized Miami quarterback Jacory Harris for six sacks in mid-October, the most sacks the Hurricanes gave up to an opponent all year long (only Oklahoma and Wake Forest had more than three, with four and five, respectively). Quite simply, the UCF defensive line is one of the best in all of college football.
The stats, however, don't capture the full game changing ability of Bruce "Big Game" Miller. Why do I call him,"Big Game?" Because he has come through with game changing and career defining plays in three of the most memorable games in UCF history. Those three games each showcased a different strength of his and helped to cement the redhead from the Georgia red clay as the 2009 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year.
Every game changing football player has a football awareness greater than most on the field with him. Even during his first year of college football, Miller was putting his high football IQ to use, racking up six sacks. His last sack of the regular season, his on the field awareness would enable him to change the course of the game.
Early in the 2007 C-USA Championship game, UCF is up 3-0. Tulsa has the ball, and prolific quarterback Paul Smith is driving the Golden Hurricane down the field. Tulsa had been limited to 23 points in their earlier trip to Orlando during the regular season and they were determined that it would not happen again.
Tulsa faced a third and long, following a false start penalty. Smith got the snap in the shotgun, fakes a pass to this right, and turned to his left. One problem: freshman defensive end Bruce Miller is unblocked and has his sights on Smith. The offensive line had slanted to Smith's right for a screen. Miller saw this and kept contain on the quarterback. Smith makes a bit of a juke move, but Miller grabbed him by the hips and slung him down to the ground for the sack.
The true importance of that sack didn't become apparent until Joe Burnett returned the subsequent punt for a touchdown, putting the Knights up 10-0. The punt return opened up the game and the Bright House Networks Stadium crowd was boisterous for the remainder of the contest. UCF would go on to win the game 44-25, earning their first conference title.
Extraordinary agility. Remember, "Big Game" was a linebacker his senior year of high school in 2005. UCF's strength coaches bulked him up during his redshirt year in 2006, but not so much that he negated his natural quickness. That would come into play during the waning minutes of the 2008 matchup with the University of South Florida.
The Bulls are running the ball, trying to run the game clock out with less than three and a half minutes left. USF quarterback Matt Grothe drops back for a pass, trying to surprise the defense, which anticipated a run. He didn't notice Miller, the former high school linebacker, dropping into coverage on a zone blitz. He jumps in front of a pass for an interception with 3:24 on the clock.
After UCF narrows the Bull lead to seven, the Bulls go conservative, running the ball on first down. But on second down, Grothe runs a play action pass. Guess who is there to beak it up? "Big Game" Miller not only blows up the play by ramming the would be runner in the backfield, he chases a hurried Grothe out of bounds, forcing him to throw an incomplete pass to keep from taking a sack. That stops the clock, saving precious time for the Knight offense, which would then score on a 31 yard pass from Michael Greco to Rocky Ross to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.
While UCF went on to lose the game in overtime, Miller did what he could do to keep the team in the game even when the game seemed out of reach.
There is his tenaciousness, sometimes referred to as having a "high motor." Someone who is coming at you at 100 percent of his ability on every play and never giving up. That was displayed in the 2009 game against conference foe Marshall.
A resurgent Marshall squad has just stopped the Knights on fourth down with 2:40 left in the fourth quarter. Many of the fans had already departed the stadium as the prospects for victory now seemed slim. The Thundering Herd run a basic running play to eat the clock, but boggle the hand off. No worries as Herd QB Brian Anderson turns around and runs. It's a heads up play as he'll have enough for a first down. Then it happens. "Big Game" crashes in and stands up Anderson. Lawrence Young joins in and gets low enough so that Anderson can't get to the ground. Miller sees this, and wedges his right arm between the ball and the freshman quarterback's body and rips as hard as he can. Just like that, the ball goes flying out of the pile, with cornerback Josh Robinson eventually recovering the ball with 2:12 left in the game.
The drama wasn't done as the Knights required a fourth down conversion that led to a Brett Hodges to
Rocky Ross touchdown pass to put UCF ahead 21-20 with 23 seconds remaining in the game. Miller did make one more play, rushing Anderson on the last play of the game and causing him to stumble to the ground as time ran out.
How does he do it? All those big plays in dramatic games? Some players just put everything together at the right moments. It is his explosiveness off the ball. Re-watching this year's win against nationally ranked Houston, "Big Game" recorded a sack in the third quarter from the defensive tackle spot. Exactly one second after the snap of the ball, Miller is already 2 and a half yards into the backfield, already splitting the guard and center. From there, Big Game gives a quick push to the guard's inside shoulder, keeping the guard out of the play and next thing you know he has Cougars' quarterback Case Keenum wrapped up for the sack. It's being at the right place, at the right time, and knowing what to do.
What's next for Bruce Miller? Well, there is one more big game left on the schedule. On December 19, the St. Petersburg Bowl kicks off with UCF playing the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Don't be surprised if "Big Game" Miller lives up to his nickname under the tilted dome of Tropicana Field. I certainly won't be.