ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Central Florida entered its Conference USA opener needing a win to slow division mate East Carolina, which was already 2-0 in league play and set to face a favorable schedule against several weaker teams the rest of the season.
Then the Knights fell behind by two touchdowns quickly, before Quincy McDuffie sparked them with a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on the way to a 40-20 victory Thursday night.
McDuffie also scored on a 64-yard touchdown catch and Knights quarterback Blake Bortles threw for a touchdown and ran for another. Shawn Moffitt kicked four field goals.
"There wasn't anything we ran that got stopped," Bortles said. "Our goal is to put points on the board every possession. We definitely want touchdowns as the end results, but even though some of those ended up with field goals, we still got points on the board."
UCF (3-2, 1-0 Conference USA) scored on eight consecutive possessions to seize control of the game, while its defense tightened and allowed only a field goal after halftime.
The Pirates (3-3, 2-1) led 14-0 early, but lost an opportunity to take control of C-USA's East Division. Quarterback Shane Carden had a rushing score and 76-yard touchdown pass, but threw an interception and was sacked twice.
With senior tailback Reggie Bullock out after sustaining a concussion last week against UTEP, Vintavious Cooper — who had 151 yards in the win over the Miners — had to shoulder the majority rushing duties with only a little relief from Michael Dobson. Cooper finished with 58 yards rushing Thursday, but failed to get into the end zone.
The 40 points allowed by the Pirates were second only to the 48 it allowed in their 48-10 loss to South Carolina Sept. 8.
""We wanted to start fast and we did have the momentum early, but then some special teams' mishaps and we lost momentum," ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. "Something tough like that happens, you got to play the next play and get the momentum back. We had some opportunities to gain it back, but just didn't do it."
It was easily UCF's strongest collective effort of the season on offense. It also got a boost from the return of running back Latavius Murray, who played in his first game since suffering a shoulder injury in the season opener Aug. 30.
Meanwhile, ECU came apart on both sides of the ball in the second half, never recovering from an early momentum swing. The loss kept the Pirates from moving to 3-0 for just the third time since 2001.
ECU, which had outscored its previous two league opponents 52-32, was outscored by UCF 20-3 after halftime. The fast-moving, no huddle offense that was successful early, whittled largely because of its lackluster 4 for 14 performance on third down.
McNeill said not stopping UCF was more of a problem.
"Our defense has been getting people off the field all year, but you got to give some credit to UCF. They did a very good job," McNeill said.
Early on it looked as if the Pirates were headed for a romp, methodically marching 75 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive of the night to take a 7-0 lead.
Carden was efficient in the air throughout, going 6 for 7 for 40 yards passing on the drive. ECU also converted a fourth-and-1 near midfield to keep the series alive.
It was the first time this season that the Pirates have scored first in a game. Entering Thursday, UCF's defense had also only allowed seven points all season in the first quarter.
UCF went three and out on its first touch of the night, and ECU's offense needed just one more play to put the Knights in a 14-0 hole, this time via Carden's 76-yard strike down the sideline to Justin Hardy.
The fast-paced scoring continued on the ensuing kickoff, though, when UCF's McDuffie bounced outside and got free for a 99-yard kickoff return to get the Knights back in the game.
The back-to-back scores spanned just 25 seconds.
UCF then tied it a series later on a 4-yard touchdown run by Storm Johnson.
The Knights end a four-game home stand next Saturday when they host Southern Mississippi. The Pirates return home to host Memphis.
UCF coach George O'Leary said he was most proud of how his team responded after a tough home loss to Missouri last week.
"I think we have a team that perseverance-wise, is very resilient," O'Leary said. "You go down 14-0 right away; I think we have a group of good seniors that hung in there."
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower .