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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — In his previous college coaching stop at Illinois, Ron Turner's third season proved to be a seminal year.
If Thursday night's season-opener is any indication, it could be again at Florida International.
Imarjaye Albury blocked a 47-yard field goal attempt by Central Florida freshman Matthew Wright in the closing seconds, and FIU held on to beat the Knights 15-14.
The Panthers trailed 14-3 at the half, but shut out UCF in the second half to snap a string of three straight season-opening losses. The victory also ended a two-game losing streak to the Knights.
"I love that sound in that locker room," Turner said. "I don't know if I have ever been more happy for a team in all my life, and I've been coaching a lot of years. These guys have worked so hard to get to this point. I'm just happy to see them get rewarded."
Progress was hard to measure in his first two seasons in Miami, with the Panthers improving to just 4-8 a year ago following a 1-11 mark in Turner's first season in 2013.
But Turner said in the preseason that he had observed a much more mature team this fall than he had in the previous two seasons.
It was needed against a UCF team that had been mostly unflappable at home heading into Thursday, going 15-1 in its previous 16 outings. The loss ended a 10-game home win streak for the Knights, which was the second-longest in school history.
Panthers sophomore quarterback Alex McGough was steady, completing 29 of 38 passes for 260 yards and a touchdown. Alex Gardner rushed for 75 yards and a score.
"Coach expected us to win," McGough said. "I know it means a lot to him, but it means a lot to us, too."
UCF had a chance to take the lead in the final minute, driving inside the FIU 30 before a false-start penalty pushed Wright's kick back 5 yards.
"I feel like we underestimated our opponent today," UCF linebacker Shaquill Griffin said. "I feel like we let ourselves play down and we can't have those problems."
Leading 14-9 in the third quarter, UCF turned it over on downs at the FIU 2 when Justin Holman bobbled the snap from center Joey Grant.
The Panthers went to the air, and McGough connected on back-to-back passes of 47 and 23 yards to Ya'keem Griner to get FIU inside the red zone.
Griner then capped the 80-yard drive by catching a deflection in the end zone to put the Panthers in front 15-14 with just under 13 minutes to play following a failed conversion run.
UCF went three-and-out to open the game, setting up a long FIU drive that ended with a 28-yard field goal by Austin Taylor.
The Panthers forced another punt on UCF's next possession, but gave it back two plays later when Gardner was stripped from behind by linebacker Chequan Burkett. The ball was recovered near the sideline by Knights safety Drico Johnson inside the Panthers 30.
UCF took advantage, and Holman connected with sophomore receiver Jordan Akins in the corner of the end zone five plays later from 9 yards out to put the Knights in front 7-3 late in the first quarter.
Following an FIU punt, Holman and Akins hooked up again for a 33-yard score to cap a seven-play, 70-yard drive.
Holman had one of his more productive games, completing 23 of 34 passes for 249 yards and the two touchdowns. But he also was constantly under pressure late in the game and was sacked twice.
UCF rushed 30 times for just 46 yards.
"This is one game. It's only one game, but these guys already believe and this is confirmation on why they believe," Turner said.
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