And so it comes to pass, after 13 games, after supposedly debilitating injuries, after winning a conference title, that the word comes down. The Houston Cougars (12-1) and the 18th-ranked team in the country, is going to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl to face ninth-ranked Florida State (9-2) on New Year’s Eve at 11:00 am Houston time.
“This certainly should be an exciting game between two very potent offenses with a lot of star power,” Gary Stokan, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl president and CEO said yesterday. “With All ACC and Heisman hopeful tailback Dalvin Cook and All AAC quarterback Greg Ward, Jr., this is the type of game you look forward to kick off the slate of New Year’s Six bowl games and a great matchup of Houston’s 12th-ranked offense against FSU’s 5th-ranked defense.”
And Greg Ward, Jr. is a dynamic player — Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher often called him electric and explosive during a media teleconference yesterday — but the Houston Cougars are about so much more than offense. Just ask any school that played UH this year about the defense that is one of the top-ranked defenses in the country when it comes to forcing turnovers.
The Cougars have forced 103 turnovers dating back to the 2013 season, and it has allowed only 38 points in the third quarter this season. Houston has also forced multiple turnovers in 37 of the team’s last 47 games. Two early Tempo turnovers fed the Houston offense and helped the team build an early 10-0 lead that Temple was unable to overcome.
“They talk about their offense, but they’re just as good on defense,” Fisher said yesterday. “They’re 19th in the nation in scoring defense. A great rushing defense. Houston’s a very, very complete, well-coached football team. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for our team.”
The Philadelphia media mentioned countless times during Saturday’s game that UH was the toughest defense Temple had seen this season. They noted that numerous of Temple quarterback P.J. Walker’s passes were rushed because he was facing as relentless and as sustained a pass rush as had been seen all season by Temple.
The challenge for Houston of course will be FSU’s Cook, as dynamic a player as the Cougars have had to deal with this season. All that Cook, a sophomore, has done this season is to rush for 1658 yards on 211 rush attempts for an average of 7.9 yards a rush. He also rushed for 18 touchdowns. He was recently named the winner of the Jim Brown award that’s given to the country’s best running back.
Houston offers up its own dynamic, electric player in quarterback Ward. Ward, a junior who passed for 2590 yards with 16 TDs and who ran for 1041 yards with 19 TDs this season, moved around a bit when he came to Houston, with Tony Levine’s coaching staff moving him to receiver and kick returner and never quite sure what to do with him. But Houston head coach Tom Herman, sometimes referred to as a quarterback whisperer for his work at Ohio State, figured out how to turn Ward into the dynamic, playmaking quarterback he is.
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“He’s so multi-dimensional,” Fisher said. “Everybody talks about his running and throwing, but you see his leadership. You see his toughness. You see his competitiveness. Those things stand out to me right off the bat. He has tremendous speed. He makes you miss. This guy’s strong now. You watch him run, when he runs the ball — this isn’t a skill guy you get a hand on you knock him down. This guy is strong, has great balance and body control, explosion, change of direction, top-end speed. But then — I’ve got to keep your eyes on him, don’t rush him…then they have playmakers all over the outside and he gets the ball down the field. You’re throwing for over 2500 yards and rushing for over a 1000. There’s very guys in this country, in college football, who have ever done that. He’s just a tremendous, tremendous player.”
There are people who probably still don’t take the Cougars seriously — mainly lots and lots of FSU fans — but Jimbo Fisher’s not one of those people. Neither’s Temple, nor any of the other schools that the Cougars faced this season. There’s a reason, after tall, that Herman was mentioned for seemingly every college head coaching job that opened up this season. His work at Houston has been noticed. And what’s been noticed is that he turned a largely underperforming team under Tony Levine into a high-scoring team with a defense that dominates its opponents.
“We’re excited and honored to play Florida State,” Herman said yesterday. “But at the end of the day, you want to win. If you’re going to lace up your cleats and buckle your chinstrap, it’s a bit irrelevant who’s on the other side of the ball. You want to come out with a win.”
So there’s just one more chance for the Cougars to come out and win this season. That chance is on New Year’s Eve with the Cougars facing off against Florida State and the Seminoles’ fifth-ranked defense. The game will air on ESPN, but UH is already selling tickets for the game (tickets in the Houston seating section are $150 each), and the school asks that fans purchase tickets for the game through the school as the university has a significant ticket commitment for the game that it must fill.