PROVO — BYU snapped a two-game losing streak, and enjoyed its highest-scoring game of the season — with a lot of help from its special teams.
The Cougar special teams scored one touchdown, and set up two more — all in the second half — as BYU defeated Central Florida, 24-17, Friday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Not to mention placekicker Justin Sorensen put the first points on the scoreboard for the Cougars with a 37-yard field goal in the first quarter.
"Special teams played a big role tonight," said coach Bronco Mendenhall.
No doubt, it was a special win for BYU no matter how it happened, considering the Cougars had suffered a humiliating 44-point defeat last week at home to archrival Utah.
"It was a gratifying win, a hard-fought win, especially after coming off a very difficult loss last week in such a short amount of time," Mendenhall said.
"To finally get a win in such dramatic fashion, the way the game went, so back-and-forth … Central Florida is a good football team," said BYU quarterback Jake Heaps. "We had to earn it. They were not going to give in to us. It was gratifying to see our guys make plays."
BYU improved to 2-2 on the season while UCF fell to 2-2.
The Cougar defense gave up a slew of big plays to the Knights, but in the end it forced turnovers and came up with big stops that preserved the victory.
In the third quarter, BYU trailed, 17-10, following a 1-yard run by quarterback Jeffrey Godfrey, when sophomore wide receiver Cody Hoffman provided the spark the Cougars desperately needed.
Hoffman returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown, marking the first time that's happened since Mike Rigell accomplished the feat in 1998 against Hawaii.
"That's a long time," Mendenhall said.
Hoffman said he wanted to break the program's long kickoff return drought since last year, and on Friday, he finally did it. "I just ran hard, and it was there," Hoffman said.
And that play, which tied the game at 17, dramatically changed the momentum of the game.
"I felt it shift a lot because they just came off a touchdown and it kind of put us down," Hoffman said. "But the momentum swung right back to us when I took it to the house."
"Our guys worked extremely hard on that kickoff return," Heaps said. "All of those guys were on the ground. Our guys just made amazing blocks and Cody made a great play, using his wheels."
UCF coach George O'Leary bemoaned his team's kickoff return breakdown.
"It's just sloppy coverage, bad kick as far as what took place. We've just got to make a play," O'Leary said. "We just didn't make a play."
Earlier, BYU scored its first touchdown of the game after a Riley Stephenson punt pinned the Knights at their own 5-yard line. The Cougars then forced a punt that gave the offense the ball at the UCF 38. Moments later, BYU tied the game at 10 on running back JJ Di Luigi's 16-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter.
Later, early in the fourth quarter, a Michael Alisa fumble recovery after a career-high 67-yard punt by Stephenson put the BYU offense in position to score the go-ahead, and game-winning touchdown.
The Cougars started the drive at the UCF 23-yard line and Bryan Kariya took three straight handoffs, culminating with Kariya's 6-yard touchdown run with 10:29 remaining in the game. It marked the Cougars' first lead of the game.
From there, BYU's defense halted UCF's final three drives in the fourth quarter.
Uona Kaveinga forced a fumble by Knight receiver Dontravious Floyd after a long catch and Jameson Frazier recovered. UCF drove then drove deep into BYU territory — highlighted by a 58-yard pass from Godfrey to A.J. Guyton — before linebacker Kyle Van Noy tipped a Godfrey pass that was picked off by cornerback Joe Sampson at the BYU 4-yard line.
UCF's final drive ended with back-to-back sacks by Van Noy and Mike Muehlmann, respectively.
"I'm really proud of my guys and how we did come back from last week and fought until the bitter end," Frazier said. "Special teams really helped us a lot this week. And our offense was able to do some things with the ball, so this was really a team victory. I couldn't just say the defense pulled this out, because that's not true. I'm just really pleased with the way we came together, because we had to fight tooth-and-nail to get this one."
BYU's offense needed help from both the defense and special teams on Friday. Heaps completed only 16-of-34 passes for 133 yards and an interception.
"My performance wasn't that great," Heaps admitted. "But we got the 'W.'"
The Cougars host Utah State next Friday (6 p.m., ESPN).