12:00 PM ET, December 3, 2005
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- Central Florida's comeback story under George O'Leary was one of the most notable plotlines in college football this year.
Tulsa has a pretty good tale of its own -- and capped it Saturday with the Conference USA title.
Tarrion Adams had three touchdowns, two of them rushing, and Tulsa's defense shut UCF out in the second half as the Golden Hurricane claimed their first league title in 20 years with a 44-27 victory in the inaugural C-USA championship game on Saturday before 51,978 at the Citrus Bowl.
It was the largest home crowd in UCF history. Most didn't stay to see Tulsa's celebration.
"We had been in those kind of venues before," Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe said. "And we weren't really phased by it."
UCF lost its last four games of the 2003 season, went 0-11 last year and dropped its first two games this season -- a 17-game streak that was the longest in Division I-A. But UCF had a stirring turnaround, winning eight of its final nine regular-season games and earning the right to host the title game.
"I thought they lost to a team that played better than they did today," O'Leary said. "They did more good things than we did and that usually results in a win for the team that does it."
Tulsa lost 21 of 23 games before Kragthorpe arrived three seasons ago. Now, for the first time since winning the Missouri Valley Conference in 1985, the Golden Hurricane are league champions.
And they can relate to UCF's climb back from college football's lowest depths.
"What [UCF] did is a tribute to their coaching staff, the things they've been able to do in such a short period of time," said Tulsa tight end Garrett Mills, who caught eight passes for 152 yards and a touchdown. "To be honest, we were kind of in the same shoe two years ago."
The win sends Tulsa (8-4) to the Liberty Bowl against Fresno State. UCF (8-4), which lost for the second time in 10 games, is expected to play in the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24.
Adams had a 15-yard touchdown catch and a 6-yard scoring run in the first quarter -- then sealed the win with a 25-yard run with 6:17 left in the third as Tulsa won for the sixth time in its last seven games.
Paul Smith completed 13 of 20 passes for 205 yards and two scores for Tulsa, which held UCF to 55 yards in the second half. Uril Parrish had 100 yards and a touchdown for the Golden Hurricane, and Mills pushed his season yardage total to 1,183 -- a new NCAA record for a tight end in a season. Brigham Young's Chris Smith had 1,156 in 1990.
Kevin Smith ran for 108 yards and a touchdown for UCF, which is bowl-bound for the first time. Steven Moffett threw for 190 yards and a touchdown, but had two interceptions and lost two fumbles -- with three of those turnovers coming in the second half.
"He just made some silly mistakes as far as trying as trying to throw on the run," O'Leary said. "By any means, he wasn't the reason for today's loss."
Tulsa led 31-27 at halftime, after the teams totaled 520 yards -- not including a 58-yard interception return by Tulsa's Nick Graham and a 68-yard punt return for a touchdown by UCF's Joe Burnett.
Moffett threw a 43-yard pass to Willie Thornton to open the scoring, but the Golden Hurricane answered with 21 straight points to build an early two-touchdown lead. Adams caught a 15-yard touchdown pass, then scored on a 6-yard run to give Tulsa its first lead, and Parrish -- after a Moffett interception -- scored from 2 yards out to cap a run of three touchdowns in less than seven minutes by the Golden Hurricane.
UCF rallied with 17 consecutive points in a 5½-minute stretch, with Smith scoring on a 31-yard run, Matt Prater kicking a 46-yard field goal and Burnett putting the Golden Knights back on top with his punt return.
But UCF would manage only three points the rest of the way, and Tulsa took full advantage. Mills' 29-yard touchdown catch with 2:06 left in the half gave Tulsa a 31-24 edge, and Adams' 25-yard TD run midway through the third pushed Tulsa's margin to 41-27.
"We fought hard. We did what we could and we just fell short," UCF defensive end Paul Carrington said. "You look back on this season, and it's nothing but a success, I think. And it just hurts right now that we didn't finish out and become No. 1 in the conference."