That slow start had the Coogs trailing midway through the second quarter after a Knights field goal put them up 10-7 with 4:38 remaining before halftime. The team would then come together in all three phases of the game as the offense would score 17 points on three straight possessions (two touchdowns and a field goal to end the half). Offensively the Houston run game kicked it into high gear with 76 rushing yards on 6 carries leading to the two touchdowns and a field goal. Defensively, after UCF controlled the first quarter behind an interior run game averaging 4 to 5 yards a pop, the “Third Ward Defense” forced two turnovers, turning them into the final 10 points to take the momentum and a 24-10 lead going into the half.
Coming out of the third quarter, offensive coordinator Major Applewhite had quarterback Greg Ward Jr. stick the ball in the gut of Kenneth Farrow three straight times on zone read dives that resulted in 80 yards. The 31-10 Houston lead took the fight out of UCF and its fans and the game was over from there. Through the first quarter and a half, the Knights outgained the Coogs 218 yards to 76 and had that 10-7 lead with the only Houston score coming off of a “strip-six” by cornerback Brandon Wilson after he stripped a UCF receiver at the Coogs 15-yard line, taking it to the house. As Houston head coach Tom Herman always says however, how a team responds to adversity is how they’ll be measured. Past Coog teams may have folded or at least allowed an inferior foe to keep the game close throughout, but not this Cougar ball club. From that 4:38 mark of the second quarter, the Coogs would go on to outgain the Knights 524 to 62 while outscoring them 52-0, dominating both lines of scrimmage.
Offensively, the Coogs rushed for 366 yards on 48 carries behind the patchwork offensive line (due to injuries) of Alex Cooper, Mason Denley, Will Noble, Colton Freeman and Carter Wall from left to right tackle. Cooper has played both tackle positions and right guard this season. Noble is just a true freshman starting his first game, pushing Freeman (who had started the previous 6 games) to right guard. Wall moved from right guard to right tackle as Marcus Oliver’s gimpy ankle still hasn’t allowed him to play at his normal left tackle spot the past few games (forcing Cooper to move from his normal right tackle spot to the left side). In the first quarter the Coogs interior run game was shut down by UCF’s huge defensive tackles. The offensive staff adjusted behind Ward’s running, whether it be on the zone read keeper, called sweeps or draws, or just the juniors pulling the ball down and deciding to run on his own, which opened up the interior as the game wore on as Farrow finished the game with 167 yards on only 13 carries and THREE touchdowns. The Ward/Farrow combo on the zone read play was unstoppable as Ward added 46 yards of his own on 10 carries with his 15th touchdown of the season. Fun fact of the day; of the Coogs last 20 red zone opportunities over the past 4 games, Ward has scored a touchdown via a QB sweep (with Farrow and tight end Tyler McCloskey as lead blocker) 11 of those times. In all, the offense has crossed the goal line 18 of their past 20 times inside the opponents 20-yard line, with only a kneel down to end the game at Tulane and a field goal to end the half Saturday afternoon at UCF after a 38-yard interception return by Khalil Williams with only 3 seconds remaining, being the only blemishes on that remarkable stat. Ryan Jackson also continues to impress as he finished the game with 75 yards on 9 carries and a TD. Kaliq Kokuma and Kyle Postma finished the up the game with 43 and 39 yards respectively.
Ward completed 16-of-23 for 216 yards with a TD. The junior struggled early as UCF was able to pressure him forcing him into predictable third-and-long passing downs in which they could pin their ears back. After the running game loosened up the D, Ward was able to convert on the short quick passing game to pick the Knights secondary apart. Ward admitted on a recent Tom Herman Coaches Show that he needs to improve on his drop backs (footwork), which would give his offensive line more protection time. He also needs to improve on reading his progressions and deep passing game as he’s still not hitting his receivers in full stride on deep posts, though he is getting better as he’s at least connecting on at least one per game which also helps loosen up opponent’s front sevens. On the Coogs first possession, he misread on a progression in which a receiver was wide open on a seam route which would have resulted in an easy touchdown. That resulting punt was the first time the offense hadn’t scored on their first possession all season long. His first pass also should have been intercepted as a UCF defensive back easily read and jumped a screen pass, but ended up dropping it (something the Knights wide receivers did all day long as well). Ward’s receivers also weren’t helping him out early as they weren’t getting open in the first quarter, allowing UCF to rush with only their four down linemen.
Demarcus Ayers had his usual brilliant all-around game with 92 yards on 5 receptions, taking a ‘flip pass’ 67 yards to the house for Ward’s only TD. Chance Allen left with an early injury only to return to catch 5 passes for 30 yards. Steven Dunbar had only 1 reception for 8 yards. Herman has talked about a fourth receiver needing to step up all season long to help ease the pressure off the starters. Saturday it was Linell Bonner stepping up to the plate to catch 5 balls for 71 yards, including a 36 yarder from Ward and a 6-yard TD from Postma in the fourth.
Defensively, coordinator Todd Orlando’s unit struggled early as the Knights were able to run on them inside, creating much easier second and third-and-short downs which they were able to convert and control the clock. As has been the case all season however, the front seven started controlling the line as they allowed UCF to rush for 97 yards on 30 carries. Through UCF’s first 20 carries they had 80 yards before two sacks by linebackers Mathew Adams and Elandon Roberts signaled Orlando’s unleashing the Coogs. With the defensive front of Tomme Mark, B.J.Singleton and Cameron Malveaux shutting down the interior run game, Orlando started sending more and more pressure forcing UCF’s Justin Holman to force his throws, two of which were picked off by the aforementioned Williams and safety Adrian McDonald later in the game. A week after not forcing a turnover, the “Jack Boyz” forced four, highlighted by Williams ‘scoop-and-score’ previously mentioned. The Knights passed for only 183 yards while completing not even half of their passes (14-for-29).
Roberts led the D with 8 tackles (2 for loss) and a sack while Steven Taylor had a relatively quite game with only 5 tackles but was picked up by McDonald’s 8, Mark’s strong game with 6 and Adams finally showing up with a sack and tackle-for-loss. The only negative continued the slow start defensively yet again, with Orlando choosing to zone up his corners, having them play 5 to 8 yards off their receivers, giving Holman easy pitch-and-catch opportunities early on. Williams has been picked on particularly as teams continue to stay away from Jackson who had his second interception of the season. Penalties continue to hurt as well as a questionable late hit by D’Juan Hines wiped out an interception by nickel back Lee Hightower.
Special teams wise, the Coos played solidly if not spectacularly. UCF returned 7 kickoffs for a 21 yard average and couldn’t return any of Logan Piper’s 5 punts, 3 of which he placed inside the UCF 20-yard line. Wilson continues to make questionable decisions in bringing out kickoffs as he returned 3 for only 46 yards while Ayers returned 3 punts for negative 2 yards, granted UCF’s punter averaged 50 yards per punt, giving his return unit plenty of time to get downfield to cover. Ty Cummings made his first field goal of the season, a 34 yarder to end the half.
Overall the Coogs need to start jumping on their opponents earlier as the season will see better competition beginning next week with Vanderbilt on Halloween night at TDECU, followed by the meat of the AAC schedule. In seasons past however, this may have been a close game. Not under Herman though. The first year head coach preaches toughness, togetherness and a “keep swinging, keep swinging, keep swinging” mentality that always has his team mentally in the game.