The Houston Cougars (3-0) got the 40-16 win over the (2-1) Cincinnati Bearcats last night. Looking at the final score, viewers would be forgiven for thinking that UH ran away with the game. However, viewers would be mistaken for thinking that because Cincinnati led the game into the fourth quarter. And it wasn’t until the Cougars turned two straight passes into pick-sixes within a seven-second timeframe late in the fourth that the game was locked up for UH.
The Cougars struggled for most of the night, dealing with a combination of injuries to key players and a Cincinnati defensive front line that pretty much manhandled the UH offensive line. The Cougars also continued to suffer from a misfiring red zone offense and inopportune turnovers.
Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. didn’t play last week against Lamar because of a shoulder injury. He played the entire game last night, but he didn’t look comfortable for most of the first half. The coaches appeared to be protecting him, trying to take him out of the running game so that he would be exposed to less punishment. But so much of the UH offense flows from Ward’s mobility that it wasn’t until he became involved in the run game that the offense began to work.
And it was Ward who threw a big interception from the red zone in the third quarter that looked as if it might doom a UH team that was holding onto a 12-10 lead. The Bearcats took the ball down the field and scored a touchdown to take the 16-12 lead (the two-point conversion was no good) just as the fourth quarter got underway.
Then Ward drove the team down the field and scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 12-yard run. Then Ward led the team to another TD to put the Cougars up 26-16. Then, with the Bearcats driving, Steven Taylor picked off a pass and took it 74 yards for a touchdown to put UH up 33-16 with 3:47 left in the game. Pushing to get back into the game, Cincinnati went to the air on the very next play, which resulted in a Howard Wilson interception that he returned 28 yards for the touchdown.
It wasn’t a pretty win for the Cougars. And it wasn’t a dominating win like the Oklahoma game. But while the Cincinnati defense did a lot to push the Cougars off their game, lots of problems were self-inflicted, like the inability to score in the red zone, turnovers on fumbles and bad passes, and some stupid penalties.
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But then there are the stats, and the stats were dominated by UH. The Cougars outgained Cincinnati 506-307 yards, including an overwhelming 180 to 30 yards on the ground. UH won the first down battle 28-13, ran more plays, 93-64, and won the time-of-possession battle 38:08 to 21:52. The UH defense forced three turnovers and got a safety. And the injured Ward passed for 326 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 73 yards and two touchdowns.
These aren't the Cougars of the Art Briles or Kevin Sumlin eras. This is a UH team that plays a punishing defense, the kind of defense that wins games for teams in the power conferences, like the Big 12. In many ways, this UH squad is still evolving. If Ward and running back Duke Catalon can get healthy, with the offensive line gaining some more experience, the offense should be able to score by run and/or pass on any team in any conference.
Which could be why, in the past several days, figures in the Big 12 have suddenly started speaking about how conference expansion is no sure thing. And after UH beat up on Oklahoma, Lamar and Cincinnati, it’s more evident that perhaps there are some teams in the Big 12 who might suddenly be afraid of having to face the Cougars.
Next on the possible playoff push for the Cougars is Texas State, next Saturday night in San Marcos. This is the second of four games in a 24-day period that feature UH playing twice on a Thursday night. It’s not an easy schedule, and it features a game against UConn, the only team to defeat the Cougars last year, and Navy, which put up a tough battle against UH last year. If the Cougars make it through this batch of the games, they’ll be perfectly positioned for winning the American Conference and should be well on the way to earning a playoff bid.