Replay: Third-Period Explosions Getting It Done for UCF

Let's face it.
UCF's first-half performances in its first four 2019 home games turned out to be so overwhelming, so proficient and so one-sided that Knights fans almost became bored by intermission.
Josh Heupel's squad scored points almost as if it was child's play, no matter the opponent.
The biggest challenge for UCF at the halfway point? "We're ahead by five touchdowns—now what do we do?"
But, two Saturdays in a row now, once on the road and then Saturday afternoon at Spectrum Stadium, the Knights found themselves in tight games after two periods. And something about that dilemma seemed to motivate UCF to no end.
The third periods in that pair of contests qualify as two of the most dominant by the Knights all season long. Let's just say a 49-0 point differential and a 395-18 advantage in total yards told UCF fans all they needed to know.
Houston--on a warm afternoon at the Bounce House--became the latest victim of that sort of onslaught.
The Cougars thought they'd made their own statement in the opening half—gaining a gaudy 357 total yards, scoring 23 points and doing just about everything a road team wants to accomplish. And it could have been worse for the Knights, considering a second-period Nevelle Clarke interception at the UCF two put a halt to a 65-yard Houston drive.
And yet it wasn't close to enough for the visitors.
UCF's defense suddenly threw up a brick wall in the third period—and Dillon Gabriel and the Knight offense calmly went about their business (Gabriel was 11 of 13 throwing in those 15 minutes for 135 yards).
What had looked like a golden opportunity for Houston turned into UCF's 20th straight homefield win—this one by a 44-29 count.
And for the second week in a row it happened because the Knights put together another final half to remember—and build upon.
The Knights knew they were in a battle after Houston grabbed a 7-0 lead less than three minutes into the action.
After UCF went three and out on its first two possessions, the Cougars took advantage by driving to the home team 27 and kicking a field goal. It was 10-0.
It marked the second straight week the Knights' opponent scored first and only the second time all year UCF did not score on its opening drive (also in the loss at Pitt).
Gabriel misfired on his first three pass attempts—and Houston had gained 100 yards before the first period was half over.
On a day when UCF celebrated its connections to the space program with constellations on its jerseys and moon craters on its helmets, the slick uniform combination quickly lost a bit of its impact because the Knights found themselves getting punched in the mouth.
Heupel's offense quickly rebounded to do its part. Gabriel's first completion of the day was a 38-yard bomb to Tre Nixon right down the heart of the defense. A 21-yard Otis Anderson run set up a six-yard Gabriel-to-Marlon Williams scoring play.
After a 75-yard Houston scoring excursion, UCF followed that with an identically long march, this one ending in a 32-yard first-down pass to Nixon for the six points (Gabriel connected on all four of his throws on the drive for 65 yards).
Still, after UCF had allowed only 21 combined first-period points all season long (leading the country in point differential in that quarter), the Cougars somehow found the key to put up 17 of their own, in the process gashing the home team for 197 first-period yards while holding the ball for almost 11 minutes.  
Clarke's interception proved pivotal—with Gabriel immediately finding Gabe Davis for 36 yards on first down. Gabriel dashed the final 22 yards on his own after the Knights changed the play at the line of scrimmage. That came three plays after a 32-yard Brandon Wimbush double-handoff reverse. UCF led 21-17. And that 98-yard march matched up nicely with the 99-yarder versus Temple and an earlier 97-yarder against Connecticut.
Houston came right back with a pair of field goals, the second as time expired in the opening half, for a 23-21 advantage.
Yet that seemed to be just the invitation UCF was awaiting--as the Knights proved for the second week in a row.
"One play at a time. Find the energy," yelled Heupel at halftime in the locker room.
 "Let's go play. This quarter is our quarter."
Added defensive coordinator Randy Shannon to his defense, "Let's get back in the mode and keep playing."
And from secondary coach Willie Martinez, "We didn't give 'em our best in that half.
"The time is now.
"Don't wait."
And so the Knights didn't.
After an exchange of punts, Bentavious Thompson (with veteran running back Greg McCrae still sidelined) burst through the line for 43 yards and a 28-23 home-team lead.
A Kalia Davis sack keynoted a three-and-out for the visitors—and after a 26-yard Anderson punt return Gabriel connected beautifully on fourth and seven for a 34-yard TD to Nixon. It was 35-23 for the Knights.
A five-play, 10-yard Houston possession went nowhere—and this time the home team made use of a twisting 42-yard catch by Jacob Harris that went to the Cougar two. Thompson scored on the next play and it was 42-23 for the Knights. Gabriel was again perfect on the drive--hitting all five of his throws to different receivers for a combined 66 yards.
UCF turned the tables so quickly that the game, as it turned out, was over. The Knights outgained the visitors 187-6 in that third period.
The only reason Houston scored again came after a fourth-period Cougar punt inadvertently hit a UCF blocker, leaving the visitors with a short field.
Inside the two minute-mark Brandon Hayes left the Knights with a feel-good ending after he tackled Cougar quarterback Clayton Tune in the end zone for a safety.
Houston ran 34 plays after halftime for a net 62 yards.
Cougar back Mulbah Car had 108 rushing yards and two TDs at halftime—but he carried 11 times for 24 yards after the break. Tune threw for only 28 second-half yards, didn't complete a pass for more than 10 yards and was sacked four times.
UCF had an astounding 17 tackles for loss—with 11 different Knights getting in on that action. Kenny Turnier led the way with three and a half of those behind-the-line plays.
The Knights, who have not lost at Spectrum Stadium since 2016, protected their turf again.
As Turnier put it in a post-game interview with the Knights' radio network, "You don't let anyone come in and sit on your couch and eat your food."

Leading tackler Nate Evans (he had a dozen) had another take on the third-period turnaround: "It bit us in the butt early. Everybody wasn't on the same key. But when we play as a unit, you see what we do."
Heupel's assessment of the third period? "We had a ton of energy. I'm proud of the way they handled the adversity of being behind at halftime."
Impassioned speeches in that Knight locker room? It was more about going back to work.
"We can be a whole lot better, but enjoy every minute of this," Heupel told his team.
"You played your hearts out. Heck of a job coming out and playing defense in the third quarter.
"You competed your butts off, got off the field and the offense did its thing.
"You changed the way the game was being played."
Now the Knights become road warriors for the next two games, beginning with a short week leading to a Friday night assignment at Tulsa.
UCF has proven it can roar out to early leads—and now the Knights have a feel for what it takes to grab control in the second half.
And if Heupel's units can combine some of that first-half magic with their more recent second-half domination, the Knights just might approach that out-of-this world look their space uniforms displayed Saturday.