ORLANDO, Fla. — Playing without starting quarterback Taysom Hill for the first time since his season-ending leg injury last week, BYU endured a slow start, and a slew of other injuries.
But the Cougars fell in overtime, 31-24, to Central Florida Thursday night in Christian Stewart's debut as BYU's starting QB.
In a wild one before a crowd of 41,547 at Bright House Networks Stadium, BYU scored 21 unanswered points in the third quarter, then UCF countered with 21 straight points, including what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown in OT.
The Cougars were facing a fourth-and-3 at the UCF 6-yard line on their overtime possession, but a slant pass from quarterback Christian Stewart to Jordan Leslie in the end zone fell incomplete to end the game.
“I’m heartbroken that we weren’t able to put it in the end zone,” said Stewart. “I thought (UCF) held Jordan the whole way, but the refs didn’t see it.”
“They made one more play than we did,” said coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Stewart completed 22 of 37 passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns and one interception.
“They pushed it to the last possession, but we came up short,” said offensive coordinator Robert Anae. “We could not get back into rhythm in the fourth quarter.”
Stewart settled down and got into a groove in the third quarter.
“I was encouraged by what I saw from Christian Stewart leading our team,” said Mendenhall.
Just to get into overtime, Cougar wide receiver Mitch Mathews blocked a 50-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds of regulation.
The Knights took the opening drive in OT and scored on a 4-yard pass from Justin Holman to William Stanback.
BYU fell to 4-2 on the season while UCF improved to 3-2.
The Cougars made a few too many miscues — giving up long kickoff and punt returns, surrendering 326 passing yards, coughing up a pair of red zone turnovers and failng to score in the fourth quarter and in OT.
“We had pivotal moments, some execution flaws we have to get cleaned up,” Mendenhall said.
On BYU’s first series of the second half, the Cougars marched 64 yards in 3:04, culminating with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Stewart to Colby Pearson to tie the score at 10-10. It was the first touchdown given up by UCF in nine quarters.
“The guys were challenged and they responded,” said Anae.
Later in the quarter, a Cougar punt hit a UCF defender in the back of the leg, and Algernon Brown recovered. Two plays later, Stewart completed a 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end Devin Mahina, who rumbled into the end zone.
At that point, BYU had seized its first lead of the game.
Moments later, the Cougars got the ball back after safety Skye PoVey intercepted a tipped pass by UCF quarterback Justin Holman. On the next play, Stewart threw a pass into the end zone that Mahina ripped out of the air for another TD to make it 24-10.
That was 24 unanswered points for BYU.
But a 58-yard kickoff return set up a UCF touchdown as the Knights cut the deficit to 24-17.
Stewart had a third and 18 run for 20 yards to keep the drive alive, but it stalled at the UCF 13-yard line on a Brown fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Knights tied the score later on a 37-yard touchdown pass from Holman to Josh Reese.
UCF missed a chance to take the lead when it missed a 46-yard field goal with six minutes remaining.
BYU struggled in the game’s opening minutes as UCF quarterback Justin Holman completed all five of his pass attempts in leading the Knights on a 79-yard drive that chewed up six minutes off the clock and resulted in a touchdown.
The Cougars’ first possession resulted in a three-and-out and after a big punt return, UCF had the ball in BYU territory. The Cougar defense stiffened, and the Knights had to settle for a 42-yard field goal.
BYU went three-and-out on its first three drives and nothing seemed to be working for the Cougars. Stewart’s long pass to Mitch Mathews near midfield on third-and-7 fell incomplete after hitting Mathews in the hands.
At the end of the first quarter, UCF had outgained the Cougars 130-4 in total yardage. Holman, who had completed only 53 percent of his passes on the season, was 12-of-15 for 106 yards.
But gradually, Stewart started to get more comfortable thanks to the pounding running of Algernon Brown and short completions.
Thanks to the punting of Scott Arellano, who gave the Cougars a big edge in the field position battle with a 59-yard punt, BYU had the ball at the UCF 20-yard line. But on first down, Stewart’s pass to Mathews in the end zone was picked off by Jacoby Glenn.
Still, BYU got on the board with 5:12 on a 32-yard field goal by Trevor Samson, although the Cougars nearly lost the ball on a fumbled exchange between Stewart and Paul Lasike, who recovered the ball.
UCF was driving in the waning minutes of the first half and reached the BYU 20 before freshman Sione Takitaki sacked Holman and snatched the ball away with 35 seconds remaining in the half.
At intermission, the Cougars trailed 10-3.
BYU hosts Nevada on Oct. 18.