PROVO, Utah – A string of botched special teams play cost UCF (2-2) another win.
The Knights, who traditionally have been a strong special teams group during coach George O'Leary's tenure, made key mistakes that contributed to a 24-17 loss at BYU (2-2) Friday night.
"We get out there and turn the ball over," O'Leary said. "We had our opportunities and we just didn't take advantage of it."
The game drew an announced crowd of 59,874 at LaVell Edwards Stadium and was broadcast nationally on ESPN.
The teams were trading offensive blows and tied 17-17 early in the fourth quarter when redshirt freshman J.J. Worton muffed a punt. BYU recovered, ran it into the end zone and celebrated.
Muffed punts cannot be advanced, so the Cougars were hit with a penalty and started their drive at the UCF 23-yard line. The penalty didn't matter and within a minute the Cougars were celebrating a 24-17 lead over the Knights.
Worton was supposed to help solve the Knights' problem fielding punts. Junior Josh Robinson botched three punt returns in the first three games this season, including one that set up FIU's win over the Knights last week.
"We can't keep shooting ourselves in the foot on punt return," O'Leary said. "It's ridiculous. That's 14 points in two weeks we've given up. It's the difference in the game, seven point. You know just guys trying to make plays instead of trying to do what they're coached to do, really."
The Knights racked up troubling statistics for the second consecutive week. UCF racked up three turnovers, all of them in the second half. The Knights vowed all week to avoid those mistakes after two turnovers led to a humbling loss at FIU, but trend continued in Utah.
"The mistakes, they keep catching up to us," UCF sophomore defensive tackle Victor Gray said. "We made them last week and we're making this week. We have to get back in that film and correct them because we will not be a championship-caliber team if we keep making these same mistakes."
The Cougars and Knights were locked in a 17-17 tie with 13:29 left in the fourth quarter.
BYU leveled a big blow, knocking sophomore quarterback Jeff Godfrey out of the game with an apparent elbow injury.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Blake Bortles took over leading the offense. He showed off his strong arm, swiftly moving the Knights to the BYU 26-yard line. UCF's drive stalled and senior kicker Nick Cattoi missed a 35-yard field goal attempt.
"I thought Bortles did really a good job, you know as far as completing some passes and getting some things done," O'Leary said. "I was pleased with him and probably, hindsight, should have left him in."
Instead, Godfrey returned late in the fourth quarter.
"I knew Blake could handle it, but I wanted to show my teammates I wouldn't give up on them," Godfrey said.
His comeback was marred by two big turnovers.
Sophomore H-back Dontravius Floyd fumbled an 18-yard catch and BYU recovered the ball with 8:46 left in the fourth quarter.
The UCF defense forced BYU to punt the ball. The Knights took over on their own 13-yard line with 6:05 left in the game.
Godfrey was leading what seemed like a promising drive when BYU's Joe Sampson picked off one of his passes deep in the Knights' territory. The interception ended the Knights' hopes of comeback.
Godfrey said running back Latavius Murray tripped while breaking open to the back of the end zone.
"I think it was a dumb play," Godfrey said. "I should have just thrown it out of bounds."
UCF had all the momentum early, amassing a 10-3 halftime lead. But BYU began to take control of the contest in the third quarter.
Cougars senior receiver Cody Hoffman ran back a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown. It was BYU's first kickoff returned for a touchdown in 13 years and another botched play for the UCF special teams unit.
"It's just sloppy coverage, bad kick as far as what took place," O'Leary said. "We've just got to make a play. We just didn't make a play. Second half when we needed to make a play, we didn't make a play. Some bad decisions out there. But you've just got to move on. It's a long season for a reason."
The touchdown tied the game 17-17 with 4:37 left in the third quarter. It also erased a potential momentum swing in favor of the Knights.
UCF had just wrapped up an efficient scoring drive spanning seven plays and 84 yards. It took 3:14 off the clock.
Godfrey connected with senior receiver A.J. Guyton for a 54-yard pass play. Godfrey finished the drive with a one-yard touchdown scamper to take a 17-10 lead.BYU capitalized on a few UCF mistakes to tie the game 10-10 with 8:13 left in the third quarter.
UCF did not return a BYU punt pinned inside the 10-yard line, then the Knights picked up a penalty that Godfrey operating out of his own end zone.
Godfrey nearly completed a pass to Guyton for what would have been a first down, but Guyton was slammed to the ground and dropped the ball before claiming complete possession.
UCF punted and the Cougars started the next possession on UCF's 40-yard line. BYU was able to quickly move the ball, capping the drive with a 16-yard touchdown run by J.J. Di Luigi.
The Knights' 10-3 halftime lead was fueled by a combination of stingy defense and efficient use of screen passes and running plays to move the ball up the field. Defensive back Lyle Dankenbring tipped a pass by BYU quarterback Jake Heaps during the first half and Robinson corralled it, running it back to the Cougars' 17-yard line. Three plays later, Godfrey ran for a 10-yard touchdown. The sequence would turn out to be the highlight of UCF's night.
"We felt real confident, but it's all about how you finish," Robinson said of the Knights' mood during halftime.
The Knights return home with more time to correct mistakes. They have a bye week before taking on Marshall Oct. 8 at Bright House Networks Stadium to open Conference USA play.
O'Leary said he will use the bye week to reconsider which players can handle game-day pressure and put the Knights in a position to win games.
"I think we're playing some kids that really need to be evaluated and why we have them out there because I've seen enough now to know if they're not disciplined, if they're not responsible, we can't use them out there," he said. "They can't think at the right time, make right decisions and eventually they hurt you on the field. So we've got to look carefully at what we're doing with some of the players out there."
Robinson said the Knights' special teams unit has to find a way to stop making mistakes.
He said he would reach out to his teammates during the bye week, focusing on improving and staying optimistic about UCF's future.