ORLANDO (AP) — Prior to the season Central Florida chose “Finish” as its team motto after a year in which it acknowledged leaving far too many close victories on the field because of its own mistakes.
Unfortunately for the Knights, Saturday’s 21-16 loss to Missouri was a reminder that they aren’t quite free of those self-destructive habits.
UCF (2-2) controlled most of the game, but a special teams mishap and late turnover erased early momentum in its bid to defeat its first Southeastern Conference opponent at home.
Marcus Murphy returned a punt 66 yards for a touchdown and James Franklin added an 80-yard touchdown pass to help Missouri grind out the win.
UCF trailed 21-10 before a late score, but following a Tigers punt, Knights receiver Jeff Godfrey’s fumble with 2:26 left allowed Missouri (3-2) to hang on.
“I feel like we lost poise,” Knights running back Storm Johnson said. “The coaches preach to us that we’ve got to finish and that’s what we didn’t do.”
Johnson, starting his second game while Latavius Murray continues to work his way back from a shoulder injury, said there was a bit of lost focus in the Knights’ huddle down the stretch.
“It’s very frustrating, just as a player,” Johnson said. “It was a winnable game today. I felt like we could have won even with all the mistakes we had. It was still a winnable game.”
Coming off a dismal passing performance last week at South Carolina, Franklin was efficient, going 19 for 30 for 257 yards.
Kendial Lawrence added 104 yards rushing and a touchdown for the Tigers.
Knights quarterback Blake Bortles kept his team in the game, connecting on 29 of his 43 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns.
But UCF coach George O’Leary said his team’s final series of the first half, which ended inside Missouri’s 3-yard line with no points, sapped a lot of his team’s early momentum going into the locker room.
He said afterward that Bortles convinced him he could make a play.
“Blake was like ‘No, coach, we can get a play,'” O’Leary said of the sequence. “Well, we didn’t do it and you can’t give up points like that…We have to make better decisions at the quarterback position.”
Prior to Murphy’s punt return, the Knights looked to be taking control of the game, leading 10-7 and coming off an interception and fourth sack of Franklin early in the third quarter.
But the slide continued with Missouri capitalizing on a short punt and needing just three plays to take its 21-10 advantage with 9:31 to play in the game.
“I don’t care how it looked,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said of a game in which his team was on the short end of almost every major statistical category. “I’m not interested in looking pretty. In my business, I want to win and it was a great win.”
Lawrence had only one carry in the first half before rushing 18 times for 101 yards after the break.
“I guess they had seen us throw and throw so much in the first half, they must have been surprised to see us run more in the second half, but we’ve got some athletes who can make big plays and we made some in that second half,” Lawrence said.
Offense was plentiful in the first half, with both teams using big plays through the air to reach the end zone.
Missouri had several promising drives stall early before getting on the board via an 80-yard touchdown strike from Franklin to Dorial Green-Beckham. That gave the Tigers a 7-3 lead in the opening minutes of the second quarter.
UCF defensive back A.J. Bouye briefly had Green-Beckham locked up by the legs near the 50 before slipping to the turf. Green-Beckham then sprinted untouched into the end zone.
The play, the Tigers’ longest from scrimmage this season, also was a career-best for Franklin.
The Knights responded on the ensuing drive, with Bortles using a 41-yard pass to Rob Calabrese to set up an 11-yard touchdown pass to Quincy McDuffie.
Following a series of punts, UCF got hot again and drove the ball from its own 12 all the way inside the Tigers’ 10 with less than 2 minutes to play in the half.
A pass interference call on Missouri gave the Knights first-and-goal on the 3. But after a stuffed run and incomplete pass, the opportunity was squandered as Bortles was sacked, and time expired before the Knights could run out their field goal team.
Despite the final miscue, the Knights’ offense had one of their best opening halves of the season with Bortles completing 12 straight passes at one point and 18 for 22 overall for 156 yards. Johnson also averaged nearly 8 yards per carry in racking up 84 yards rushing.
The Tigers were successful at times with their hurry-up offense, but UCF’s defense also helped keep Franklin off balance, sacking him three times in the opening 30 minutes.
UCF opens its Conference USA schedule Thursday night against East Carolina.
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