After earning low marks with their short program last fall, Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea decided to start fresh. The pair from Ellenton, Fla., didn’t feel a strong emotional connection to the music, leading them to ditch that program and replace it with one set to the popular song “Take Me To Church.’’

They chose that piece, they said, because it generated passion — and Thursday, it landed them in first place after the pairs short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Kayne and O’Shea scored 69.61 points with a heartfelt skate, taking a slim lead over defending champions Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim. Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran are in third place heading into Saturday’s free skate.

Knierim fell on a triple salchow as he and Scimeca performed to music by Metallica, and the deduction lowered their score to 67.35 points. Castelli and Tran earned 64.12 points, with the close margins setting up a dramatic race for the title.

“We started [the new program] as soon as we could, and we’re happy we did,’’ said O’Shea, who teamed with Kayne to win bronze at last year’s nationals.

“This music, it gets inside you. It gives you that feeling. … It’s music that we felt really spoke to us.’’

Kayne and O’Shea had thought about performing to “Take Me To Church’’ — a huge pop hit for the Irish singer Hozier — for a while. They originally planned to do so next year, but their low scores for the short program they skated earlier this season prompted them to make the switch sooner.

Scimeca and Knierim said they were well prepared for the short program and did not feel nervous. But Knierim had fallen on the triple salchow throughout the week, and he could not land it Thursday.

“We’re disappointed in our program,’’ Scimeca said. “But we’re optimistic and looking forward to our free program. It’s a close point difference between the top three, and we know if we throw down a great long, we’ll be fine.’’

Kayne and O’Shea earned the afternoon’s highest marks for both their elements and presentation. Scimeca and Knierim will be looking to regain their form on their free skate — performed to music from “Elizabeth: The Golden Age’’ — after faltering at the Grand Prix Final, when a fall on their quadruple twist dropped them to seventh place.

Kayne and O’Shea will counter with a free skate to “The Music of the Night,’’ and Kayne said they will take nothing for granted.

“It’s always a fight,’’ Kayne said. “We’re fighters, so it doesn’t matter. Alexa and Chris and Marissa and Mervin are fighters. Whether we’re in first [place] or eighth, we’re going to skate the same program.’’