ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Central Florida Golden Knights preserved their No. 19 ranking and a shot at the American Athletic Conference title with a nerve-racking 23-20 victory over the South Florida Bulls.
It was the Knights' (10-1, 7-0) first win in five games against USF (2-9, 2-5) and kept UCF's hopes alive for the school's first bid to a BCS bowl game. The Knights could clinch the American Athletic Conference title if Cincinnati loses to Louisville next Thursday.
UCF quarterback Blake Bortles connected with receiver Breshad Perriman for a 52-yard bomb to erase a 20-16 deficit and put USF ahead with 4:50 left in the game. Bortles was 17 of 26 for 219 yards and two touchdowns, but threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. UCF had five turnovers in the game.
USF had one more possession, reaching the UCF 39-yard line where freshman quarterback Mike White was intercepted by defensive back Jordan Ozerities on a third-and-6 play with 1:20 left in the game. Ozerities returned the ball 52 yards and UCF was in the clear.
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-6 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.
The Bulls had a chance to pad the lead after defensive back 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 kicker Marvin 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 kicker Shawn Moffitt.
The first half was an offensive nightmare for both sides, though more so for UCF.
The Knights, who turned the ball over just 12 times in the first 10 games, suffered turnovers on three of their first possessions.
Running back Storm Johnson lost fumbles on UCF's first two possessions and Bortles was intercepted the fourth time the Knights had the ball.
USF turned two of the turnovers into field goals of 46 and 42 yards by Kloss and led 6-3 early in the second quarter. The Bulls had 83 yards total offense and four first downs in the first half, but no turnovers.
UCF, meanwhile, had trouble getting out of its own way. Johnson's second fumble stopped a Knights drive at the USF 11-yard line and sent the Knights' leading rusher to the bench for the rest of the half, though he had 55 yards rushing in seven attempts.
In his absence, freshman William Stanback picked up just 17 yards on seven carries.
That threw the burden on Bortles, who was not sharp against a USF defense that seemed to know the plays as well as their opponents.
The Knights had 186 yards of total offense, 92 of them coming on a 12-play drive that ended with tight end Justin Tukes getting his first touchdown pass of the season, an 8-yard toss from Bortles.
That gave UCF a 10-6 lead and Moffitt pushed it 13-6 with his second field of the game, a 24-yarder with six seconds left in the half, but it was anything but a dominating performance by a Top 25 team.
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.