Houston Cougars escape upset – and look like title contenders while doing so

CINCINNATI – Thursday night is a favorite’s graveyard in college football, a place where dream seasons go to die.

For three quarters and one play here, Houston had a foot in the grave and Cincinnati had a shovel in its hands.

The Cougars were playing in the Bearcats’ lovely little on-campus snake pit in front of 40,015 fans, the third-largest crowd in Nippert Stadium history. They were turning the ball over. Their offensive line was being routed by the Bearcats. Their defense had been unable to generate a turnover, while their offense had given it away three times.

Their star player, quarterback Greg Ward Jr., was playing hurt and everyone knew it. The throwing shoulder that kept him out of Houston’s game against Lamar last weekend was far from 100 percent, which kept him from putting full velocity on his passes.

Cincinnati hit Houston with a flea-flicker bomb near the end of the third quarter, and on the first play of the fourth the Bearcats scored the go-ahead touchdown. Tommy Tuberville, a crafty old coach who knows how to pull an upset, looked like he had another one brewing.

Houston receiver Chance Allen celebrates with lineman Na'Ty Rodgers after his 39-yard touchdown. (AP)
Houston receiver Chance Allen celebrates with lineman Na’Ty Rodgers after his 39-yard touchdown. (AP)

A lot was going wrong for the nation’s sixth-ranked team.

And then Houston blew out the Bearcats, scoring the game’s final 28 points for a 40-16 victory. The quest to crash the College Football Playoff party remains very much alive, after a great eight-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.

The Cougars’ offense finally finished drives, scoring 14 points on successive possessions. A defense that hadn’t recorded an interception in the season’s first 11 quarters made three in the final 11 minutes, returning two of them for scores.

It was a sudden but emphatic turnaround. After three quarters that tested the Cougars’ mettle, the fourth showcased their character. They were plenty good enough and plenty tough enough to turn a textbook upset loss into a triumph.

“Resiliency,” coach Tom Herman said. “Nobody hung their head. We knew we were playing better than them at halftime. … [The fourth quarter] was very exemplary of a veteran team that’s been in a lot of big games. That’s the mark of a really good team.”

Houston is every bit of that. Its 13-1 record a year ago said as much, and following that up Sept. 3 with a 10-point win over Oklahoma as a double-digit underdog backed it up. But these are the kind of games – a crucial gut check on the road against a conference opponent that also happens to be a competitor in the Big 12 Expansion Derby – where a team can find out it is truly special.

“We didn’t push the panic button one time,” said linebacker Steven Taylor, whose 74-yard interception return for a touchdown sealed the game with 3:47 left.

With a defense that had his back, Ward got his game going when he had to. The do-it-all junior ran or passed on 62 plays Thursday night, producing 399 yards total offense and ignoring the pain in his right shoulder. Trainers worked on the shoulder throughout the game, trying to keep it loose, but there was never a moment when Ward was asking to leave the game.

“It was going to have to be hanging off for him to come out of the game,” Herman said.

Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. totaled 399 yards in offense against Cincinnati. (AP)
Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. totaled 399 yards in offense against Cincinnati. (AP)

Still, the reality exists that Ward is both vital and fragile. He missed significant time in two games last year with an ankle injury, and the shoulder will be something to watch all season – though Herman said he is not at risk of further injury by playing.

Fortunately for Houston, the upcoming schedule should provide Ward and the rest of the Cougars time to heal. After two showcase games in the first three weeks, they’re about to go into a national media hibernation of sorts.

These are the next seven Houston opponents: Texas State, Connecticut, Navy, Tulsa, SMU, Central Florida and Tulane. Only the Navy game will be played outside the state of Texas, and only Navy looks like an opponent capable of threatening Houston.

Which means there is a great chance for Houston to rest its wounded, pile up victories, stay undefeated, stay in the playoff picture and get ready for a potentially huge home game against Louisville on Nov. 17. Getting past this trap game in Cincy opened the path to a long run as a playoff contender.

Of course, plenty of people will use that soft schedule as a reason to keep Houston segregated from the Power Five old boys’ club. Which is why the Cougars could use some help Saturday.

They would benefit greatly from an Oklahoma victory over No. 3 Ohio State. That theoretically would boot the Buckeyes out of Houston’s path in the polls, while also strengthening that win over the Sooners.

And they would benefit from a Louisville victory over Florida State. That could evict the No. 2 Seminoles from Houston’s path as well, while simultaneously upgrading the stakes for that late-season game against the Cardinals.

But here is the other reality for Houston, something it probably understands in full after this game: Its ranking and profile have risen to the point that they will bring out the best in every opponent. Cincinnati and its fans were jacked to the max for this game, and that will be the case the rest of the way.

“We’ve got a target on our backs, there’s no doubt,” Herman said. “The guys in that locker room have earned that. We’ve got to learn to play that way, as the hunted and not the hunter.”

Houston’s playoff dreams were hunted to the edge of extinction for three quarters and one play, in the kind of setting where bad things can happen to good teams. Then the Cougars went from endangered to dominant when they had to.

Now they have two months to pile up wins while rooting for carnage everywhere else. It’s not a bad place to be.

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