The punishing tandem of Storm Johnson and William Stanback helped Central Florida dictate the tempo.
And then the Knights hung on for dear life in the final minutes to keep their dream season alive.
Johnson rushed for 127 yards, Stanback added 74 yards and a pair of touchdowns and UCF’s defense came up with a goal-line stand in the final minute to help the Knights hold on for a 19-14 win over Houston in a battle for first place in the American Athletic Conference.
John O’Korn hit Wayne Beadle in the back left corner of the end zone for a 12- yard touchdown to pull the Cougars within 19-14 with 4:04 remaining.
After a UCF three-and-out, Houston regained possession at its 38-yard line with 3:02 left. Kenneth Farrow took a pass in the right flat for 22 yards and O’Korn hit Deontay Greenberry over the middle on a 3rd-and-10 to move the ball to the UCF 20-yard line.
Houston was faced with a 1st-and-goal at the 10, but came up empty as consecutive passes on third and fourth down by O’Korn fell incomplete. His first toss for Greenberry glanced off his finger tips and his final pass sailed high.
“I’ve been around football a long time and it doesn’t get any closer than that. You’ve got to make a play. We made the play on defense. The coverage was good. That is critical down there. They have a short window to throw it and we tightened the window pretty good,” UCF head coach George O’Leary said.
With a prior win over preseason conference favorite Louisville and now Houston, the Knights (7-1, 4-0 AAC) have the inside track to the newly-formed league’s automatic BCS bid.
UCF and the Cougars both moved to the AAC from the Conference USA.
Blake Bortles was 17-of-24 for 210 yards and an interception for the Knights, who have won four straight since a 28-25 loss to South Carolina on Sept. 28.
Jeff Godfrey hauled in five receptions for 67 yards, while Breshad Perriman caught five passes for 60 yards before exiting early in the fourth quarter following a targeting hit by Zach McMillan. McMillan was ejected after a review.
Perriman remained on the ground for several minutes before being carted off.
O’Korn completed 24-of-46 passes for 231 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions for Houston (7-2, 4-1). Greenbery had 94 yards receiving on eight receptions.
Houston, though, was unable to take advantage of three UCF turnovers.
“The thing we emphasize more than anything in our program, defensively, is creating turnovers,” Cougars head coach Tony Levine said. “Normally, when you win the turnover margin you win the game.”
With the Cougars trailing 6-0, defensive end Jeremiah Farley jarred the ball loose from Bortles following a slow developing play-action pass and Cameron Malveaux recovered the pigskin at the UCF 37-yard line at the 8:57 mark of the third.
Four plays later the Cougars were in the end zone after O’Korn broke free along the left sideline and dove inside the left pylon for a 24-yard score.
Central Florida then turned to its ground game to surge in front as the Knights tallied scores on back-to-back touches.
Stanback capped UCF’s ensuing 10-play, 75-yard march with a 15-yard TD burst through the middle for a 13-7 margin late in the third.
The Knights began their next scoring drive from their own 2-yard line. Bortles hit Perriman for 17 yards and Rannell Hall for a 15-yard completion before Stanback exploded for a 38-yard TD scamper.
Johnson fumbled on 1st-and-goal from the seven on UCF’s initial touch of the game and a scoreless opening frame ended Houston’s 39-quarter touchdown streak.
Shawn Moffitt hit a pair of field goals in the second quarter to stake the Knights a 6-0 advantage heading into the break.
Some quotes used in this story came from Associated Press