ORLANDO -- There was a lot on the line Friday night for No. 19-ranked University of Central Florida -- conference title, first bid to BCS bowl game, first win against cross-state rival -- and the Knights nearly caved under the weight before sneaking out of Brighthouse Stadium with a nerve-rattling 23-20 win over the lowly South Florida Bulls.
UCF, 27-point favorites against USF (2-9, 2-5), needed a 52-yard bomb from quarterback Blake Bortles to receiver Breshad Perriman with 4:50 left in the game to erase a 20-16 deficit and keep the school's hopes alive for the American Athletic Conference crown and the school's first berth in a BCS bowl game.
The Knights (10-1, 7-0), who committed five turnovers, need a win at the SMU Mustangs (5-5, 4-2) next Saturday to clinch the conference and BCS bid. They could back into it if the Louisville Cardinals (10-1, 6-1) beat the Cincinnati Bearcats (9-2, 6-1) next Thursday.
"I suppose somebody up there is watching over us," UCF coach George O'Leary said. "When you don't play well and have five turnovers, you don't usually win games, but when you come back and score at the end to win the game, what can you say? I told our guys congratulations, but obviously, we've got to play better."
"We were put in a situation where we had to make something happen to win the game and we did it," UCF center Joey Grant said. "You feel fortunate, but you've got to make things happen to win games and we've done that."
USF missed several opportunities to score an upset against a team they had beaten in all four previous meetings. The Bulls missed a chance to extend their 20-16 lead when kicker Marvin Kloss, who has four 50-yard or longer field goals this year, was wide right with a 51-yard attempt just before Perriman's touchdown catch.
Then, with just over a minute to play, freshman quarterback Mike White took the Bulls to the UCF 39-yard line, well inside Kloss' range for a game-tying field goal, but was picked off by UCF cornerback Jordan Ozerities.
"We had an opportunity and we didn't take advantage of it," USF coach Willie Taggart said. "We're trying to teach our guys to hate losing. You have to hate losing in order to start winning.
"But give our guys credit. Considering the fact of where we're at right now, those guys kept fighting and we had an opportunity. They just made the plays and we didn't."
UCF won despite three lost fumbles, two interceptions and a truly mediocre game from the normally dependable Bortles, who did not meet the media after the game for the first time all season. The junior quarterback was intercepted twice, lost a fumble and threw for only 219 yards, 52 of which came on the game-winning play to Perriman.
"Blake threw a good ball (to Perriman) and it was against the wind, so I congratulated him on that, but it doesn't make up for those turnovers," O'Leary said. "He knows he made some decision mistakes by holding on to the ball too long. We didn't take advantage of some guys being open on intermediate routes because Blake was holding the ball too long, waiting for the big play. You can't do that. You got to get rid of the ball and hit the open guy."
The USF offense, which came into the game with a nation-low nine touchdowns this season, scored its second TD of the game on a nine-play, 77-yard drive that ended with running back Marcus Shaw rolling in from 2 yards out early in the fourth quarter. The key play was a 31-yard pass from White to tight end Sean Price on a third-and-six play that took the Bulls down to UCF's 2-yard line. Shaw scored two plays later to make it 20-16 with 14:17 left in the game.
"Our kids were excited," Taggart said. "To be honest, I think they were more excited about scoring touchdowns than taking the lead."
The Bulls had a chance to pad the lead after Nate Godwin picked off another Bortles pass, giving USF possession at the Knights' 28-yard line. The USF drive went in reverse after a holding call, but Kloss, who has made four kicks of more than 50 yards this season, came on for a 51-yard attempt. His kick sailed wide left, leaving UCF's deficit at just four.
A Bortles-to-Perriman bomb erased that three plays later.
UCF, which turned it over three times in the first half, started off the second half the same way. Bortles was stripped by USF defensive end Ryne Giddins and defensive lineman Julius Forte pounced on the fumble to set the Bulls up at the UCF 29-yard line.
The Bulls made short work of it, scoring four plays later on a 13-yard reverse by wide receiver Chris Dunkley. Kloss' PAT tied the game at 13 with 5:43 left in the third quarter. Hall returned the ensuing kickoff 69 yards to the USF 27, but the Knights were three-and-out for the second time in the half, settling for a 39-yard field goal from Shawn Moffitt.
NOTES: USF entered the game having scored only nine offensive touchdowns this season, fewest in the nation. ... UCF has only eight seniors, second fewest in the nation behind South Carolina (5). Four of the seniors are starters. ... Bulls K Marvin Kloss is one of three Lou Groza Award finalists. He has made four 50-plus yard field goals this season and seven of more than 47 yards. ... UCF K Shawn Moffitt has kicked a field goal in every game this season.