ORLANDO, Fla. — Nick Montana avoided what looked like a sure sack, stepped up in the pocket and heaved a deep desperation pass to receiver Leondre James.
Defended tightly, James had two chances to make a spectacular, drive-sustaining catch, but he could not come up with the ball before it hit the turf.
It was a familiar script for Tulane, which committed too many mistakes on special teams and made too few plays on offense to capitalize on an inspired defensive effort, falling 20-13 to defending American Athletic Conference champion Central Florida on Saturday afternoon at Bright House Networks Stadium.
The last chance ended on Montana’s incomplete pass from the Tulane 28-yard line with 58 seconds left. The Green Wave (2-5, 1-2) failed on several better opportunities before then after forcing four turnovers from UCF (4-2, 2-0) but managing only six points off them.
“It was very frustrating,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “It should have been 21 points (in the first half). We just didn’t take advantage of some of the turnovers our defense gave us. We have to get to the point offensively where we make touchdowns or field goals or something when they give us the ball way down there.”
The first series for both teams set the tone. Freshman linebacker Edward Williams intercepted a tipped pass at the UCF 28 to give the Wave a quick chance to go ahead.
Instead, the Wave failed to pick up a first down, and a high snap from Mike Lizanich contributed to a missed 42-yard field goal by freshman Andrew DiRocco.
Later in the first quarter, Tulane took over at the UCF 8 when Knights punter Caleb Houston dropped a snap. But Montana did not come close to connecting with James on a third-down fade, forcing the Wave to settle for a 21-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Montana finished 18 of 42 for 147 yards with zero touchdowns and two interceptions.
“It’s real frustrating,” he said. “We had a bunch of opportunities to come up with a win against a really good opponent. When the defense gives it to us like that, we have to put it in.”
Tulane outgained UCF 278-233, but mistakes on offense and special teams helped turn that early 3-0 lead into a 13-3 deficit at halftime.
Matt Marfisi airmailed a punt snap over Peter Picerelli’s head, handing the ball to UCF at the Tulane 15 on the first play of the second quarter. That error set up a tying field goal.
A Montana interception gave the ball to the Knights at the Tulane 25, leading to a 30-yard field goal and a 13-3 deficit.
With Tulane out of timeouts near the end of the first half, Montana completed a third-down pass short of a first down at the UCF 28, then ran up and spiked the ball to stop the clock with 2 seconds left. Just one problem: The ball went over to UCF on downs.
“I thought it was right at the sticks and for sure it was a first down,” Montana said. “I’ve got to be more attuned to that.”
Tulane still found a way to stay close deep into the fourth quarter — with a little help. UCF coach George O’Leary called a flea flicker on fourth-and-1 from the Wave 18 instead of attempting a field goal, and receiver J.J. Worten missed wide-open quarterback Justin Holman in the end zone.
Tulane responded with a penalty-aided 85-yard touchdown drive to pull within 20-13. After getting the ball back, the Wave moved to the UCF 27 before Lazedrick Thompson was stuffed on fourth-and-2 with 3:41 left.
The bigger problems came when Tulane tried to throw, though.
“We have,” Johnson said, “to jump-start our passing game.”