Houston got a dose of reality Saturday night. In this tourist mecca, not all dreams come true. Needing just 7 yards to take the lead, the Cougars had two passes fall incomplete in the end zone during the final 30 seconds in a gut-wrenching 19-14 loss to 19th-ranked Central Florida before a crowd of 44,665 at Bright House Networks Stadium.
A battle of teams undefeated in American Athletic Conference play turned into a defensive struggle marred by a couple of ill-timed penalties that went against the Cougars, the last leading to the ejection of cornerback Zach McMillian. “We had our chances to win the game at the end,” UH coach Tony Levine said.
The loss dropped the Cougars (7-2, 4-1) into a second-place tie with Louisville in the American. UCF (7-1, 4-0) took over sole possession of first place and is in the driver’s seat for the league’s automatic Bowl Championship Series bid. The Cougars’ two losses this season - to BYU and UCF - have been by a combined six points.
Down 19-7, the Cougars mounted a furious rally, with true freshman quarterback John O’Korn hooking up with Wayne Beadle for a 12-yard touchdown with 4:04 remaining - after UH had blocked a 50-yard field-goal attempt - and then driving the team inside the UCF 10-yard line in the final minute.
Following a 3-yard run by O’Korn, the freshman quarterback had his pass in the back of the end zone bounce off the fingertips of Deontay Greenberry. On fourth down, UCF free safety Brandon Alexander broke up a pass intended for Aaron Johnson to end the comeback.
UH, which entered the game as the only Football Bowl Subdivision team to score in every quarter this season, went scoreless in the first half and was held to a season-low 14 points, well below its 41.1 season average. The Cougars also were plagued by at least a half-dozen dropped passes.
O’Korn was 24-of-46 for 231 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. He scored on a 24-yard keeper midway through the third quarter, ending the Cougars’ longest scoring drought of the season.
Storm Johnson had a career-high 127 rushing yards for UCF. William Stanback scored on touchdown runs of 15 and 38 yards in the second half, the last giving UCF a 19-7 lead with 10:23 remaining.
The UH defense created a pair of turnovers with a fumble and interception inside the 10-yard line on the Knights’ first two possessions of the game. For the season, the Cougars lead the nation with 32 takeaways.
The Cougars were called for a pair of game-changing penalties late in the second half. The first was a facemask by Trevon Stewart that set up Stanback’s first touchdown run. The second was a targeting call on McMillian as wide receiver Breshad Perriman attempted to make a catch. Perriman remained on the field for several minutes and was taken to a local hospital. The Knights capped off the 98-yard drive with Stanback breaking a couple of tackles for a 38-yard touchdown run.
Due to the ejection, McMillian will have to miss the first half of next week’s game at Louisville.