ORLANDO, Fla.—Moving the ball has not been a problem for Houston this season.
It wasn’t against UCF, either, but finishing drives and turning those yards into points was as the Cougars’ fell to the 19th-ranked Knights 19-14 on Saturday night
Houston had a pair of turnovers and came up empty on a two passes inside the 10 in the closing seconds to suffer their first American Athletic Conference loss of the season.
The Cougars now joins everyone else in the league hoping UCF slips up in the chase for its at-large bid to the BCS.
Houston forced three UCF turnovers, but turned only one of them into points.
“The thing we emphasize more than anything in our program, defensively, is creating turnovers,” Cougars coach Tony Levine said. “Normally, when you win the turnover margin you win the game.”
William Stanback scored two touchdowns to help the Knights keep first place in the American Athletic Conference all to itself.
Storm Johnson added 127 yards rushing for UCF (7-1, 4-0), which now has the inside track to the league’s automatic BCS bid, with victories against the Cougars and Louisville.
The Cougars drove to the UCF 10 in the final minute, but came up empty on back-to-back passes from John O’Korn into the end zone. The first went off star receiver Deontay Greenberry’s finger tips and second to Aaron Johnson was then broken up by UCF linebacker Brandon Alexander.
O’Korn had a touchdown pass and two interceptions for the Cougars (7-2, 4-1).
The Knights had three giveaways and lost receiver Breshad Perriman to a targeting hit early in the fourth quarter, but rallied to preserve the win.
Trailing 13-7 in the fourth, Houston pinned UCF on its own 2, but the Knights got some space on a 17-yard completion from Blake Bortles to Perriman.
Bortles went to Perriman again two plays later, but his pass over the middle was broken up by Cougars’ cornerback Zach McMillian. McMillian was flagged for targeting on the play, and was ejected after a review.
Perriman remained down on the field for several minutes receiving medical attention and was carted off.
The Knights weren’t shaken, though, and Stanback scored his second touchdown of the game five plays later to stretch UCF’s lead to 19-7 with 10:23 to play. The seven-play, 98-yard drive was the Knights’ longest of the season.
Bortles said the injury wound up giving the team a an emotional jolt.
“That’s a brother,” Bortles said. “That was on me a little bit for throwing that ball and kind of setting him up. We finished the game out for him. That gave us a little fire and a little extra motivation to win the game.”
Following a UCF missed field goal, Houston got life when O’Korn found Wayne Beadle in the end zone from 12 yards out to close the gap to 19-14.
UCF then gave the Cougars the ball right back with 3:02 to play after going three-and-out.
Houston went to the air and moved quickly, eventually using a 14-yard pass on third down by O’Korn to get into the red zone. But UCF held—and held on to sole possession of first place.
O’Leary said he expected Perriman to be OK, but wasn’t sure of his status for next week against Temple. He said the play was indicative of ones that the rule was put in place for.
“He got sandwiched in there. That’s what they call launching, they call targeting. He didn’t target him, but he left his feet and hit him helmet to helmet,” UCF coach George O’Leary said. “He left his feet and launched into the air. You got to keep your eye on the ball and he didn’t do that.”
After defense-dominated first half, offense began to pick up in the final 30 minutes.
Houston’s first possession of the second half ended abruptly when Alexander intercepted a deflected pass by O’Korn.
But the Knights turned it right back over when Bortles fumbled after being sacked from behind.
The Cougars worked quickly and needed just four plays to set up a 24-yard touchdown run by O’Korn to put them up 7-6.
The Knights offense recovered, and capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive with a 15-yard touchdown run by Stanback to make it 13-7.
UCF took a 6-0 halftime lead into halftime, but could have had a much larger cushion if not for some costly turnovers.
The first quarter ended without points for Houston, ending a streak of 39 straight quarters with points.