ECU (3-3, 2-1 C-USA) trailed 28-17 at halftime before the defense, offense and special teams took charge with a 28-3 run.
The defense forced five turnovers in the third quarter to take control away from the Knights (3-2, 1-1 C-USA). The Pirates converted three of the turnovers into scores. In addition to Johnson's kick return, Rob Kass hit Jamar Bryant on a 6-yard scoring pass and then hit Davon Drew on a 20-yard play.
A fourth score off a Central Florida turnover came at the start of the fourth quarter as Kass ran 6 yards up the middle to give East Carolina a 52-31 edge to complete the wild turnaround.
The 52 points are the most for East Carolina since the Pirates beat Houston in three overtimes, 54-48, on Nov. 9, 2002. They are the most in regulation since a 59-24 victory over Army on Oct. 5, 2002.
Johnson set a single-game school record for all-purpose yards. His 372 yards on kickoffs, rushing and receiving broke the mark of 356 set by Scott Harley against North Carolina State on Nov. 30, 1996.
Quarterback Kyle Israel hit 9 of 16 passes for 166 yards in the first half to help the Knights take the lead. He finished 28-for-45 for 308 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Kevin Smith, the nation's leading rusher, gained 147 yards and scored on a 1-yard run with 1:34 left in the half to give the Knights a 28-14 edge.
The Associated Press News Service
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