ORLANDO, Fla. — After a disastrous first quarter that included three turnovers in three plays, the University of Tulsa appeared out of its element.

What followed was an incredible turnaround that propelled the Hurricane to its first win against a ranked opponent in a decade, a drama-filled 34-26 victory at No. 11 UCF in the American Athletic Conference opener.

It also was TU’s first win of a COVID-ravaged season that featured only one game in September. For a second year in a row, the Hurricane stormed back from an 11-point halftime deficit to defeat the Knights.

UCF entered with the second-longest home win streak in FBS, having prevailed in 21 in a row dating to a Nov. 19, 2016, loss against TU.

“We’ve had some close games in the last couple of years and it felt great to come out on top of this one, on the road and in a tough environment,” coach Philip Montgomery said. “Our guys just hung tough and continued to battle and I couldnt be more proud of them."

On a rainy night at Spectrum Stadium, the outcome of a game that lasted more than four hours remained in doubt until the final minute. Clinging to a five-point lead at midfield with three minutes left, TU converted a crucial third down — an area that has been a significant issue in the early going of the season.

Under pressure, quarterback Zach Smith found receiver Keylon Stokes for 10 yards and running back TK Wilkerson followed with a 14-yard run to burn time on the clock. Zack Long, who made his first career field goal in the second quarter, hit a 34-yarder to extend the lead to eight.

Starting a drive with 90 seconds left, the Knights threatened until a holding penalty derailed the series. On the last play, quarterback Dillon Gabriel threw a Hail Mary to the end zone, but it was knocked away.  

To beat UCF for a fourth meeting in a row, TU relied on a variety of weapons including freshman punter Lachlan Wilson, who three times pinned the Knights inside the 10-yard line. Linebacker Zaven Collins was the best player on the field, providing a series of game-changing plays.

And then there was Smith, who struggled for most of the first half but clicked before halftime and caught fire from there. He finished 17-of-29 passing for 273 yards and three touchdowns.

“I just started seeing it a little better, just kind of settled down,” Smith said. “I started rough. I think I was maybe pressing a little bit, trying to play outside my game.

TU (1-1, 1-0 AAC) trailed 16-0 midway through the first quarter, having given up as many points as the entire game at Oklahoma State. Things went off the rails when fumbles by Smith and Corey Taylor II sandwiched an interception from Smith.

The Knights cashed in after the first fumble, then followed the interception with a pick of their own. Smith was tackled in the end zone for a safety, and UCF scored again on a 49-yard run from Otis Anderson.

In the hour-long first quarter, the teams combined for five turnovers and two safeties.

While the offense was sputtering, the Hurricane defense kept delivering big plays. Collins continued his dominant season with a safety, part of a first-half performance that included 2.5 tackles for lost yardage, an interception and a pass breakup.

UCF (2-1, 1-1) advanced to the 1-yard line late in the first half but needed four tries to reach the end zone, relying on offensive lineman Cole Schneider to punch it in.

Having completed five passes to that point, Smith responded with three consecutive throws that were on the money. It took 44 seconds for the Hurricane to travel 88 yards, highlighted by a 48-yard touchdown catch by Josh Johnson.

That gave us some confidence, some momentum going into halftime, and guys just kind of fed off that, Montgomery said. We knew wed shot ourselves in the foot. We had things open in the first half that we didnt take advantage of. We finally did on that last drive and I think that kind of set the tone for what we knew we could do in the second half.

Trailing 23-12 at halftime, TU got possession after a stellar play by Bryson Powers, who snatched the ball from the return man. Smith immediately threw downfield, connecting with Sam Crawford Jr. for a 34-yard touchdown.

The Hurricane defense stepped up again, keeping UCF to a field goal after it advanced to the red zone with a pair of pass-interference calls.

Smith kept gunning the TU offense, hitting Stokes with a 49-yard pass that led to a touchdown from Wilkerson. The extra-point attempt would have knotted the score at 26 but was missed wide right.

As the game progressed, UCF became more rattled, having committed a rash of offensive penalties in the second half. An unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on a punt return pushed the Hurricane up field, and Stokes caught the go-ahead touchdown pass.

“We never stopped playing hard and it showed,” Smith said. “We ended up coming out on top. I couldn’t be more proud of this team.”