ORLANDO, Fla. - Up to Saturday, there hadn't been much to say about the University of Central Florida's defense this season.
But that all changed as the Knights narrowly escaped with a 19-14 victory over the University of Houston.
Knights safety Brandon Alexander got a finger on a pass in the endzone intended for Houston receiver Aaron Johnson with 14 seconds left to preserve the win for UCF.
The Knights held Houston scoreless for the first half, the first time that's happened to the Cougars this season.
"Our defensive kids did what they had to do at the end to win the game," UCF Coach George O'Leary said. "They had scored in what, 32 straight quarters, and we stopped them, so you have to say our defense was pretty good."
Added UCF quarterback Blake Bortles, "Our defense was awesome the whole night."
Bortles threw for just 210 yards passing, no touchdowns, one interception and one lost fumble.
"We were marching the ball 75, 80 yards down the field and then killing ourselves with turnovers, but the defense bailed us out."
Houston coach Tony Levine saw pretty much the same thing. His team had scored in every quarter this season, until UCF's defense shut them out in the first half.
The Cougars finally scored in the third period on a 24-yard run by freshman quarterback John O'Korn to take a 7-6 lead. They got another touchdown late on a 12-yard pass from O'Korn to Wayne Beadle to make it 19-14.
But O'Korn and his receivers couldn't pull the game out when they had it first-and-goal at the UCF 10 in the final 30 seconds.
"We had our chances to win at the end and we just didn't come down (with) the ball," Levine said. "I give Central Florida a lot of credit. That's a very talented defense, not giving up any points."
Houston's defense, which leads the country in takeaways, did its part, getting three turnovers from UCF.
Knights' running back Storm Johnson, who rushed for a career-high 127 yards, contributed a lost fumble to Bortles two turnovers.
Johnson's backup, freshman William Stanback, had 74 yards on nine carries and scored both of the Knights' second-half touchdowns.
"They say you have to have a short-term memory and that's what I did after the fumble, I forgot about it," Johnson said. "Our offensive line did an incredible job all night. We had five plays we wanted to run and the offensive line was amazing executing those plays."
The Knights also had to overcome the loss of wide receiver Breshad Perriman, who left the field on a stretcher after a helmet-to-helmet hit from Houston defensive back Zach McMillian, who was ejected from the game.
Perriman gave a thumbs up to fans as he was wheeled off the field and taken to a local hospital for precautionary examination.
"That's what they call launching," O'Leary said. "Their guy didn't target (Perriman), but he left his feet and hit him helmet-to-helmet. He left his feet and launched into the air. You got to keep your eye on the ball and he (McMillian) didn't do that."
UCF improved to 7-1 overall and took command of the American Athletic Conference lead at 4-0. Houston dropped to 7-2, 4-1.
UCF scored once at the end of the third period and again early in the fourth to break open what had been a defensive battle. Stanback scored both touchdowns on runs of 15 and 38 yards.
The Knights then withstood a late rally by Houston that started when the Cougars blocked a 50-yard field goal attempt by UCF kicker Shawn Moffitt with 6:06 left. Houston drove the ball 53 yards for a touchdown that narrowed the deficit to 19-14 when freshman quarterback John O'Korn hit Wayne Beadle with a 12-yard pass with 4:04 left.
The Cougars forced UCF to punt and got the ball back at their 38-yard line with 3:02 left. O'Korn got Houston to the UCF seven-yard line with 20 seconds left, but Deontay Greenberry and Aaron Johnson couldn't handle passes in the end zone.
The Cougars, shut out in the first half for the first time this season, got a break midway through the third quarter when Bortles fumbled after being sacked by Houston's Jeremiah Finley. Cougars defensive end Cameron Malveaux fell on the ball at the UCF 37-yard line.
Four plays later, O'Korn rambled 24 yards for a touchdown. The freshman quarterback scrambled away from the UCF rush and sprinted untouched through the middle of the Knights' defense to give his team its first lead of the game.
It didn't last long.
On the next possession, the Knights went 75 yards on 10 plays, aided by an offsides call and 15-yard facemask penalty that helped them convert a second-and-20 situation. Stanback got the last 20 yards, including a 15-yard dash through the left side of the Houston defense for a touchdown.
UCF went 98 yards on its next possession to push the advantage to 19-7. Play was stopped for 12 minutes during the drive when McMillian was ejected for the hit on Perriman with 12:52 left in the fourth quarter.
Four plays later, Stanback burst up the middle and scored from 38 yards out.
Houston saw its streak of scoring in 39 straight quarters end in the first period. The Cougars were the only team in the country to score in every quarter this season, but they went three-and-out on their first two possessions and had just 33 yards in the period and 105 yards for the half.
UCF, meanwhile, moved at will against Houston for most of the first half, rolling up 224 yards. But its first two drives ended with turnovers in the red zone.
The Knights did get field goals of 40 and 45 yards from Shawn Moffitt for a 6-0 halftime lead.
NOTES: The Cougars have 19 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries and lead the nation in turnovers forced. Their plus-21 turnover ratio also was No. 1 nationally entering the game. ... UCF's Moffitt is perfect this season, having hit all 11 of his field goal attempts. ... Houston had scored in 39 straight quarters, dating back to Nov. 17, 2012, game against Marshall, before being shut out in the first half Saturday.