ORLANDO, Fla.

The UCF student section was mostly empty for the second-half kickoff between the Knights and East Carolina at Spectrum Stadium on Saturday night.

On homecoming weekend and likely with other social plans on the forefront of their minds, UCF’s students had plenty of reason to leave at halftime.

They remembered that the last football visit from ECU resulted in a 63-21 win by their Knights. More fresh on their minds was that UCF stormed out to a 21-0 lead Saturday and was up 35-6 at halftime, all part of an eventual 41-28 victory by the talented home squad.

But the fans who didn’t stay for the entire game missed a Pirate comeback attempt that was bound to make some eyebrows raise throughout the American Athletic Conference.

The Pirates could have been excused to roll over when they were down 30-plus points in the first half, but they didn’t. They outplayed the hosts, straight up, to likely surprise a high-powered UCF program that has “2017 national champions” etched on its press box on the south side of Spectrum Stadium.

ECU outscored UCF 22-6 after halftime, and the rally by the Pirates (3-4, 0-3 AAC) was no fluke. It was an inspired effort concocted by physical and aggressive plays, different from when the Pirates fell behind in league games in recent seasons and even this year against Navy on Sept. 14 in a 42-10 defeat that first-year Pirate coach Mike Houston recalled after the UCF game and described again as embarrassing.

“At Navy, I felt embarrassed and humiliated,” he said. “Tonight, I feel energized. I feel frustrated, but I see so much progress.”

Thousands of paid attendees from the crowd of 42,906 didn’t see ECU’s Leroy Henley cleanly block a punt after a three-and-out by the formerly ranked Knights (5-2, 2-1) on the first possession of the second half.

East Carolina then scored on three of its next four offensive drives, cutting the deficit to 35-22 on Holton Ahlers’ 20-yard rumble into the end zone with 4:45 remaining in the third quarter.

The sophomore quarterback and Greenville native, who is vital for any continued progress by the Pirates, released raw elation and fist pumps from the Pirate sideline after his touchdown run. That was refreshing to see and an important moment during a personal and physical up-and-down campaign so far for emotional Ahlers.

For all the positives after halftime, it was a game that still made people wonder why the Pirates couldn’t be close to that competitive during the opening half. UCF’s speed and yards after receptions fueled its torrid start.

The Knights’ dominant performance during the first two quarters allowed for UCF students to stroll out of the venue at intermission knowing there was no way their team could lose and not extend its home winning streak to 19 games.

Many of those students probably checked their phone later in the night and saw the final score, 41-28, leading to a couple of immediate thoughts:

“Wait, what happened?” or, “We must have put in all of our walk-ons,” or, “I thought East Carolina wasn’t any good?”

UCF’s 25-1 combined record in 2017 and ’18 helped the Knights grab national attention and take over as the best home atmosphere in the American. It was mostly a comfortable setting for the home team and home fans against the Pirates on Saturday night.

Whenever ECU returns to Spectrum Stadium, the UCF fans probably will need to stay for all four quarters.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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