No last-minute magic for Case Keenum and No. 13 Houston this time. Central Florida made sure of that.
Brett Hodges outplayed the nation’s most prolific passer and Brynn Harvey rushed for 139 yards and three touchdowns Saturday, leading UCF to a 37-32 upset that stopped a five-game winning streak Keenum had kept alive with a pair of last-minute rallies.
Central Florida coach George O’Leary motivated his team by showing them clips of a resilient Muhammad Ali at the height of his boxing career, stressing the night before how important it would be to weather adversity against Houston’s high-octane offense.
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“We wanted to show our team a true champion,” O’Leary said after the Knights (6-4, 4-2) rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to build a 17-point lead before Keenum threw two late TD passes to make the final score close.
Central Florida remained in contention for Conference USA’s East Division title. Houston (8-2, 4-2), which had not lost since a 58-41 setback at UTEP on Oct. 3, was dealt a blow in its bid to represent the West in next month’s C-USA championship game.
“They turned it into a physical game and we didn’t respond the way we should have,” Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said. “When it becomes a physical game, you have to be able to match that style of play, and we didn’t do it.”
Harvey scored on runs of 1, 41 and 7 yards, the last set up by an interception that stopped Keenum’s streak of consecutive passing attempts without a pick at 123. Hodges completed 21 of 25 passes for 241 yards and one TD.
Keenum threw for two TDs in the closing minutes, cutting into a 37-20 deficit. He finished 33 of 56 for 377 yards and three scores. He had more than 500 yards passing the previous two weeks against Southern Mississippi and Tulsa, and Houston won both games by scoring in the final minute.
UCF entered the game leading the conference in total defense and fewest points allowed despite ranking near the bottom of the league against the pass.
The Knights gave up 470 yards passing to Colt McCoy in a 35-3 loss to Texas the previous week, but did a nice job against Keenum after yielding a 51-yard TD throw to Tyron Carrier that gave Houston a 10-0 lead.
“Their defense made some corrections in the second half. … We had a couple of three and outs, and that’s not our deal,” Keenum said. “Their defensive front was relentless and they even did a good job on our screen plays. We just couldn’t get it going like we should.”
Keenum threw a 31-yard TD pass to Carrier to finish a 94-yard drive that trimmed Houston’s deficit to 37-26, then led an 80-yard to score again on a 15-yard TD pass to Chaz Rodriguez with 10 seconds left.
Carrier had nine receptions for 149 yards. The Cougars, who have been averaging 42.1 points and 577.9 yards per game total game, finished with 423 yards to Central Florida’s 393.
UCF had the ball for more than nine minutes of the opening quarter, but couldn’t take advantage. Houston produced a field goal and Keenum’s first TD pass on its first two possessions, then lost fumbles at the Central Florida 9 and 20 on its next two drives.
Amazingly, the Cougars clung to a 17-10 lead at the half after Central Florida’s offense and special teams, which yielded Devin Mays’ 100-yard kickoff return, managed to keep Keenum on the sideline for all but the final 1:18 of the second quarter.
Hodges was 6 of 6 for 45 yards passing on a 15-play, 62-yard drive that ended with Nick Cattoi’s 35-yard field goal, then the Knights ran the ball nine times on a 10-play, 62-yard march that freshman Jonathan Davis finished with a 4-yard run for his first career touchdown.
“When you snap the ball only four times in the second quarter and your just trying to run out the clock on that, it does take away some momentum,” Keenum said.
UCF’s domination of time of possession continued in the third quarter, with the Knights forcing two three-and-outs to start the period and Harvey scoring after each stop to put Central Florida up 23-17.
Hodges, who was 12 of 12 for 135 yards on UCF’s first four scoring drives, threw 24 yards to Quincy McDuffie to make it 30-20. The Knights went up 17 midway through the fourth quarter when Harvey scored his third TD after Justin Boddie intercepted Keenum and ran the pick back 22 yards to the Houston 7.
For Keenum, who’s thrown for 31 TDs, it was only his sixth interception of the season.
UCF, which is now bowl eligible for the third time in four years, trailed 17-3 before forcing the first-quarter fumbles that help the Knights take control.
“When you have a team down, you’ve got to keep on jumping on their throats,” Houston offensive lineman Chris Thompson said. “We pride ourselves on playing harder than the opposition, but they outplayed us.”