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NCAAF Team Report - Houston - INSIDE SLANT
In his first career collegiate start, true freshman quarterback John O'Korn's numbers were passable. He was just 15 of 33 for 281 yards and three touchdowns with an interception, but the 18-year-old's most important digits were the final score as the Cougars survived a late special teams blow-up to hold off Rice 31-26 Saturday at Reliant Stadium.
O'Korn salvaged a sketchy first half with some of his best play of the season. Trailing 13-10 with half a minute left to the break, O'Korn hit Deontay Greenberry in stride on a quick slant to turn a third-and-seven into a 34-yard gainer. On the ensuing snap, an O'Korn bullet found Daniel Spencer on a post pattern as he crossed the goal line for a momentum-flipping 25-yard touchdown and 17-13 lead just five seconds before the break.
"I was proud of John as he made a couple of freshman mistakes but is still learning," Houston head coach Tony Levine said postgame. "He's getting better, and he's a competitor. He took some pretty big hits out there and got back in the game and threw three touchdown passes."
O'Korn, who played the final three quarters in relief the week prior, engineering a 22-13 victory at Temple after junior starter David Piland slammed the back of his head on the turf, finds himself back in the starting lineup this week in the Alamodome versus UT-San Antonio.
Whenever he lines up in the shotgun behind center Bryce Redman to take those first snaps, O'Korn can take comfort in knowing slot receiver Greenberry is also on the field. The sophomore continued his early-season dominance with a six-catch, 146-yard performance, going up amongst three defenders to pluck a 28-yard touchdown pass from the air after O'Korn was forced to flush right out of the pocket.
But Greenberry and one-back Ryan Jackson (18 carries, 87 yards, 1 TD vs. Rice) remain the only consistent offensive threats on a Cougars club that owes its undefeated start chiefly to the defense. The Cougars' D was on top of its game yet again at Reliant, knocking Owls big-back Charles Ross from the game by halftime. And even after Rice's Alex Lyons returned a blocked Richie Leone field goal attempt for a 64-yard score late, turning a 31-13 laugher into a 31-26 nail biter, and the Owls then recovered the ensuing onside kick with two minutes to play, the defense again rode to the rescue. True freshman defensive end Tyus Bowser was key on the deciding play, his pressure coupled with Thomas Bates' fourth-down coverage forcing a missed connection from Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue as the Owls turned the ball over on downs.
That defense, which has allowed just 52 points in three victories, will be front and center against a Larry Coker-led UT-San Antonio team that's on the rise after last season's 8-4 campaign. Saturday night, they walked through Conference USA rival UTEP in a road game at the Sun Bowl.
"(Defensive coordinator David) Gibbs makes the game easier so we don't have to think as much and we can fly around," said safety Adrian McDonald, who had a fumble recovery as part of the Cougars defense's two takeaways in Reliant. "We've got eleven people to the ball, and that's how teams win."
NCAAF Team Report - Houston - NOTES, QUOTES
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--Bowser took advantage of his increased playing time after being inserted for starting defensive end Eric Braswell, who went down early against Rice with an arm injury. And how! Bowser intercepted his first pass, recorded his first two sacks and added four quarterback pressures to show himself as the Cougars defense's top performer in the victory. He's scheduled to trade tackles and sacks for box-outs and rebounds at season's end as a dual member of the Cougars' football and basketball teams.
--True freshman back-up quarterback Greg Ward made an impact in the first action of his college career. With Piland out, Ward moved into the back-up quarterback role, providing a spark with his feet. After entering on Houston's second possession after O'Korn had the wind knocked out of him, Ward called his own number on his first three snaps for 19 yards and a first down on the way to an 80-yard rushing afternoon. Ward also completed all three of his passes for 48 yards, including a 31-yarder for Marquis Ambles' only catch in his first collegiate contest.
--In just his second career start, redshirt freshman outside linebacker Steven Taylor topped the Cougars with 11 tackles in a 4-3 defense tailored to the middle linebacker spot. The six-foot, 200-pounder also added his first-ever quarterback sack.
NEXT WEEK: Houston (3-0) at UT-San Antonio (2-2), Saturday, 3 p.m. CDT, in the Alamodome. This is the first-ever meeting between Conference USA refugee Houston and the C-USA newcomer Roadrunners.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "People take it for granted thinking it's so easy to come in as a true freshman and adjust to the speed of this level. When you talk about true freshmen playing, (they) haven't been through our condition, nutrition, and were limited in spring practice. We started coaching them seven weeks ago. For (Bowser) to play at a high level this early shows how good he is. He's only going to get better with time." -- Houston head coach Tony Levine.
NCAAF Team Report - Houston - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: The legs of Ward saved a discipline that had been Houston's best offensively before a subpar outing last weekend. Jackson snapped a three-game run of hundred-yard efforts with 87 yards on the ground to lead a Cougars attack that sorely missed tandem back Kenneth Farrow, likely out for a second consecutive game with an ankle sprain. Being without Farrow could prove crucial against a UT-San Antonio defense that just held UTEP, at the time 12th in the nation rushing with 286.5 yards, to only 99 ground yards.
Scouting the passing game: Greenberry makes this part of the Houston offense look much better than it actually has been. The 6-3 slot receiver is among the nation's best at adjusting to the ball in the air. The sophomore is one career night from already matching last year's yardage totals. Unfortunately, no other aspect of the Cougars' air game has consistently shown up, with a good chunk of the blame going to the unsettled quarterback position along with an offensive line that's suddenly short two-fifths of the season's original starting lineup.
Scouting the run defense: The introduction of a totally new outside linebacking tandem has paid early dividends for the Coogs, as both Taylor and Efrem Oliphant have been active and disruptive. Their aggressive natures could prove problematic against more explosive future rushing attacks but should be safe for at least another week versus a Roadrunners club coming off a season-best 181 rushing yards at UTEP.
Scouting the pass defense: The pass defense will have its work cut out versus senior quarterback Eric Soza (93-for-145, 6 TD, 3 INT) who threw 20 touchdown passes versus just three interceptions in 2012. As usual, Soza seeks out the best matchups in what truly is a spread offense, spreading the wealth to a bevy of receivers. Kam Jones (15 catches, 145 yards) leads the pack along with fellow juniors Kenny Harrison (11 catches, 119 yards) and Brandon Freeman (10 catches, 130 yards).
--Receiver Anthony Rodriguez caught his first pass since surgery ended his 2012 season. Rodriguez pulled in a 12-yard toss from backup quarterback Ward in the second quarter, setting up a Rich Leone 24-yard field goal to close within 13-10.
--Ty Cloud saw his first action Saturday since returning from offseason injuries, taking over after LT Rowdy Harper left the game in the second half with a knee injury. Cloud perfectly stoned the Owls' right end on his first snap, remaining at tackle for one more play before swapping back with DeAnthony Sims into his old left guard spot. That's where Cloud is expected to get his first start Saturday.
--In his first starting assignment after taking over for ousted starting outside linebacker George Bamfo, spring ball third-teamer Oliphant showed up. The junior speedster finished third against Rice with nine tackles, including two stops behind the line of scrimmage. Oliphant grabbed the starting job after a similar two stops for minus yardage along with a forced fumble and quarterback sack in the Week 2 win at Temple.