ORLANDO — The third quarter was pivotal once again for UCF.
A week after scoring 28 points in the quarter to pull away big time from Temple, UCF used another big third quarter to take the lead and run away from Houston.
Trailing 23-21 at the half, the Knights received major contributions from all three units in outscoring the Cougars 21-0 in the third quarter of a 44-29 win Saturday afternoon at Spectrum Stadium.
“Defensively, we were able to get them in third-and-long situations and get off the field,” said UCF coach Josh Heupel. “We ended up having a short field and the punt return later in the quarter helped us as well. So, a ton of really good things when all three phases played well together.”
After receiving the second half kickoff, the Knights (7-2/4-1 AAC) could not get out of their own territory and had to punt. Andrew Osteen’s 47-yard boot gave Houston the ball at its 11. Three plays later linebacker Brendon Hayes recorded one of UCF’s five sacks by dropping Cougars’ quarterback Clayton Tune at the eight yard line and forcing a punt.
On the ensuing possession the Knights, wearing space-themed uniforms for the third annual space game, set up shop at midfield. On third-and-three Bentavious Thompson busted loose for a 43-yard touchdown run to give UCF a 28-23 lead, an advantage they would not relinquish.
The punt return the second-year coach referenced was Otis Anderson’s 26-yard sprint to the Houston 37 yard line, which followed the defense forcing a three-and-out. Four plays later, on fourth-and-seven, Dillon Gabriel connected with Tre Nixon for a 34-yard touchdown to give UCF a 35-23 lead with 5:58 remaining in the decisive quarter.
“Dillon’s one heck of a player and he always puts it in the right spot,” said Nixon, who caught six passes for 123 yards and two scores. “He’s an all-around great teammate.”
Gabriel found five different teammates on the Knights’ next drive when he completed all five of his passes for 66 yards. The 73-yard drive was capped by Thompson’s two-yard TD run to make it 42-23 with 40 seconds remaining in the quarter.
The offensive efficiency was a far cry from how the game started when the Knights sputtered while Houston was busy taking a 10-0 lead.
“We started kind of slow, mostly on my part,” said Gabriel, who threw for 298 yards, three touchdowns and had a 22-yard scoring run during a turnover-free outing. “We had adversity, went three-and-out twice, came back and put some points on the board.”
Did they ever. In fact, UCF’s seven scoring drives totaled all of 8:36 during an afternoon in which they had the ball for only 18:29. The flip side is that such a quick-strike offense doesn’t allow much time for the defense to get a breather. Alas, the unit is accustomed to it.
“With a high-scoring offense like that, we are trained during the summer and fall camp to be built like that,” said tackle Kenny Turnier.
The defense recorded 17 tackles for loss with 11 different players, led by Turnier’s 3.5, contributing to the impressive total. The unit limited the Cougars to six third-quarter yards and 62 in the second half.
“All my brothers came to play and not every game are you going to be on,” said linebacker Nate Evans, who had a game-high 12 tackles, including a pair of TFLs. “Everybody was in the right gaps and I was just so happy to be around the ball. Nothing different, nothing spectacular. Just good defense.”
Until the Cougars (3-6/1-4) scored a meaningless touchdown with three minutes remaining in the game, the Knights had outscored their opponents 56-0 in the second half over the last two games.
“I don’t think schematically there are major changes that have happened at half time,” said Heupel of the Knights’ defensive dominance after the break against the Owls and Cougars. “I think as much as anything our kids have settled into the game, they have their eyes in the right place and play with great technique.”
Whatever the case, the Knights won their 20th straight game at home and have a short week ahead of them what with a trip to Tulsa on Friday night upcoming.
The Knights need help if they are going to play in a third straight conference championship game. They need to win out and hope that Cincinnati, which defeated visiting UCF last month and remains unbeaten in conference play, loses twice. The Bearcats hold the tiebreaker thanks to their 27-24 win on October 4.