You've heard the old saying "defense wins championships." It just might for the Tulsa Golden Hurricane.
TU's defense allowed just 235 total yards in its 23-21 win over Central Florida Saturday, clinching the Conference USA West division and earning the right to win the conference championship on their home field.
Tulsa got off to a fast start when freshman Daniel Schwarz drilled a 41-yard field goal to go up 3-0. After forcing a three-and-out, the TU offense swung for the fences--and connected.
From their own 30 yard line, quarterback Cody Green launched one deep to a wide-open Keyarris Garrett who dashed into the end zone to put Tulsa up 10-0.
UCF answered back early in the second quarter when quarterback Blake Bortles found Breshad Perriman in the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown. Bortles was under duress, sprinting away from one TU defender while being dragged to the ground by another, but somehow found the strength to complete the pass and cut the lead to 10-7.
Tulsa got sloppy later in the quarter when Ja'Terian Douglas fumbled and UCF's Troy Davis recovered at the TU 32 yard line. But once again, the Hurricane defense stood strong and held the UCF offense in its place. TU caught a break when Shawn Moffitt's 54-yard field goal missed to the left by about a foot, keeping the score 10-7.
The only really questionable moment of the game came near the end of the first half, when Green had a deep pass intercepted and returned 73 yards for a touchdown. TU had the ball at midfield with a 10-7 lead and under four minutes left in the half. Green's pass got caught up in the wind and ended up five yards short of his intended receiver, Jordan James. A.J. Bouye easily intercepted it and took it back all the way to give UCF the 14-10 halftime lead.
Conventional wisdom would have been to use the remaining time and attempt to score just before the half. Instead, the TU coaching staff went for it all and it backfired.
Tulsa went back on top early in the third quarter when Green found Garrett in the flat and Garrett took it 20 yards to the house to put TU up 16-14 (extra point blocked).
The Golden Hurricane defense cranked it up again on UCF's next possession, putting heavy pressure on Bortles and forcing a three-and-out.
TU's ensuing drive would end up defining the game, but it almost never happened. Trey Watts muffed the punt, but somehow recovered the fumble amongst multiple Knights to save the possession. The Golden Hurricane would take advantage by stringing together a 12-play, 87-yard drive that ended with another Garrett touchdown, this time from 13 yards away to give Tulsa the 23-14 lead.
The Hurricane took that nine-point lead into the fourth quarter, but the Knights didn't get to 6-0 in conference play by accident, and they weren't going down without a fight Saturday. Latavius Murray capped a 42-yard drive with a three-yard touchdown run, cutting the lead to 23-21.
Tulsa answered with a 59-yard drive; cutting 5:10 off the clock, only to have Schwarz's 29-yard field goal get blocked.
That gave UCF the ball on its own 20 with 3:50 left to play, needing only a field goal to win it. That's when the Hurricane defense made its strongest statement of the day.
On 2nd and 9, Shawn Jackson sacked Bortles for a loss of four. On 3rd and 13, Bortles was sacked by Cory Dorris for a loss of two. And finally, on 4th and 15, UCF's last chance, Bortles was rushed and his pass fell incomplete.
This game was built up to be a slugfest and it lived up to the hype. Both offenses struggled to find consistency while the defenses made big plays.
For the most part, the Knights held the Golden Hurricane's powerful run game in check. TU managed 209 yards on the ground, but only averaged 3.9 yards per carry. UCF is also the first team to hold Tulsa without a rushing touchdown all season.
Garrett finished with seven grabs for 130 yards and three touchdowns. It was the first multiple-touchdown performance of the sophomore's young career.
Up next for the Golden Hurricane (9-2, 7-0) is a date with SMU next Saturday at 11 a.m. TU will look to finish the C-USA regular season slate unbeaten, but would still host the conference title game even with a loss to the Mustangs.
UCF (8-3, 6-1) can clinch a date with Tulsa in the championship by either beating UAB or having East Carolina lose to Marshall.