The University of Central Florida Knights are, perhaps, the best team in Conference USA. They definitely have the best defense, and their offense is one of those bone-crushing, time-consuming rush-oriented games that drains the souls of opposing defenses. They're 6-2 on the season (4-0 in the conference), and if there is any C-USA team that epitomizes the style of play of some of the bigger, more physical football conferences, then the Knights it is.
And the Houston Cougars don't care.
It's not that they don't care about the Knights. It's that the focus of the Cougars isn't on how UCF plays football, or how UCF helped to spoil their season last year. The Cougar focus with UCF, like in their previous games with Memphis and SMU, is on one thing and one thing only. That focus is on the Houston Cougars.
"I'm not worried about other teams," head coach Kevin Sumlin said Tuesday. "And that's not disrespectful to them. We've approached this about us. And all we can do is deal with our plan, execute our plan, play, and get better. Basically, we have not really concerned ourselves so much about the other team, the opponent. That's not disrespectful to them, we're dealing with ourselves."
A focus on themselves, on eliminating mistakes, on executing their plays, on making their blocks, limiting turnovers, and catching the football when the pass hits them in the hands. It's a focus that has seen an offense slightly evolving, one which has a seen more of a focus on what has been, in the past, an underrated running game.
"Since we've been here, there's always been a worry about, when we first got here, we didn't have a running back," Sumlin said. "We've got running backs. We'd love to have Bryce back, but obviously we've got guys who shown they can get it done, too."
Junior running back Bryce Beall, who has been one of the Cougars' leading offensive players this year, taking over more of a leadership role along with more of the offensive load after Case Keenum's season-ending injury, may not be playing tonight. But as with quarterback, where freshman David Piland has more than adequately replaced Keenum, the running back position for the Cougars is set with Michael Hayes.
Michael Hayes wasn't supposed to be playing football for the Houston Cougars this season. He wasn't even supposed to be playing in Conference USA. But luckily, the University of South Florida decided they had some better options, and Hayes was left without a school. Luckily for the Cougars, he ended up in Houston just as the season was about to start. And luckily for Hayes, he found an ally to lean on, and to learn from, Bryce Beall.
"Working with Bryce is great," Hayes said. "When I came in, I wasn't expecting for him to be there like he was and for him to help me out with the offense, telling me the ins-and-outs of the offense. Actually, the first time I scored, the first person to congratulate me was him. Since I got here, and since he's been helping me, it's just been a great chemistry between us."
Hayes describes himself as basically a shy person, and he didn't talk much when he arrived at Houston. And he didn't go about attempting to make friends. Not right away. He figured it was more important that he learn the offense, and that he prove himself. But he has more than proven himself to the team, and both Hayes and Beall talk of the time they spend together and the chemistry they're generating on the football field.
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While the Cougars have been focusing on themselves, they are aware of what UCF is capable of doing. They are aware of UCF's bruising defense, and of rushing offense that averages nearly 200 yards a game while averaging a 33:43 time of possession per game, the best in the conference. And the Cougars are very aware of what they need to do.
"We've got to be able to get off the field on defense and we've got to convert first downs, convert third downs, and then create some turnovers and hang on to the ball, and we'll be all right," Sumlin said.
That's easier said than done, of course. But if the Cougars continue focusing on themselves, and on perfecting their game, then tonight's game with UCF is going to be a real battle.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Michael Hayes and Tyron Carrier give a lot of the credit for the team's recovery this season to David Piland. Carrier says Piland reminds him of Case Keenum when Keenum was a freshman....Wide receiver Patrick Edwards scored three touchdowns last week against Memphis, including once on a 74-yard punt return. Edwards leads C-USA in both total punt return yardage with 231 and in average yards per return with 16.5....Tonight's game is scheduled to kick-off at 7 p.m., and it will be broadcast on ESPN 2, or you can listen to the fantastic Tom Franklin on 790.