NCAAF Team Report - Houston - INSIDE SLANT
Central Florida took a giant step toward winning the inaugural AAC title and the berth in a BCS bowl that goes with it. But with four games left in the season, you won't catch UCF coach George O'Leary talking about that just yet.
"You won't even here me mention that. I'll be talking about Temple," O'Leary said, referring to the Knights upcoming opponent. "We've got to get up each and every week and take care of one game at a time."
That cliche aside, Central Florida won't be under the most pressure this week. The Knights are unbeaten in AAC play, with wins over both its main rivals in Louisville and Houston. It doesn't play Cincinnati, and the Bearcats already have a loss themselves. It now faces a Temple team that's still winless in conference play and, at 1-8, is officially playing for next year.
Instead, it's UCF's last opponent that gets the pivotal battle, as Houston remains on the road to take on Louisville. The loser of that game is effectively out of the title race, while the winner has to hope for a three-way tie atop the league. Both lose a head-to-head tiebreaker with UCF because they lost to the Knights.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, travels to take on Rutgers. The Bearcats have the toughest finish of any of the contenders, traveling to Houston on Nov. 23 before hosting Louisville to end the season. That inexplicable Oct. 5 loss to South Florida could prove costly for the Bearcats if the team runs the table and doesn't get help from one of UCF's remaining opponents.
As for Central Florida, don't expect the Knights to lose because they're taking anything for granted.
"I told the players enjoy the night and we will get busy tomorrow correcting mistakes," O'Leary said after knocking off the Cougars. "It was a win that we were looking for and a hard-fought win. We have to improve in some areas, but it was a good win for UCF."
CENTRAL FLORIDA (7-1)
Game: Central Florida 19, Houston 14. Houston nearly saw a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter evaporate, but the defense came through with a critical stop in the final seconds. Though the Cougars had first and goal at the Knights 10-yard line, the Knights staled Houston at the seven-yard-line to win it.
Takeaways: Central Florida got the victory it needed over Houston, despite the fact that it made more than enough mistakes on offense to lose.
The Knights turned the ball over twice inside the Houston 10-yard-line, on a Blake Bortles interception and a Storm Johnson fumble. After Houston cut the margin to 19-14 with 4:04, the Central Florida offense was unable to muster a first down and punted the ball back having used up barely a minute of gametime.
"You can't turn the ball over three times; twice in the red zone," coach George O'Leary said. "They hurt tremendously as far as getting points on the board. I thought defensively to hold that team to 14 points, and (to have) a great play at the end of the game to save the win, that is a big-time team win."
O'Leary also made a point of crediting the home crowd, perhaps because the Knights still have a pair of home games remaining that they have to win to take the conference crown.
"I thought it was fantastic," O'Leary said of the ambiance. "That is how it should look every week. They (the players) feed off of it and the fans feed off of it. I thought they did a great job as far as the noise factor. It bothered them (Houston). It helped our young kids. I thought that the atmosphere was outstanding tonight. It looked like everybody enjoyed themselves and I know the players can hear it and they knew that they had a full house behind them."
Next: at Temple, Nov. 16.
Game: Cincinnati 28, Southern Methodist 25. Cincinnati won its fourth game in a row by holding off a furious SMU comeback bid late. The Mustangs scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, but the Bearcats recovered an onside kick with 3:27 to play and were able to run out the clock.
Takeaways: This wasn't a game that the Cincinnati defense is going to love watching on film. It gave up 451 yards to the Mustangs, and 15 fourth-quarter points. Only a recovered onside kick and a strong running game kept the Bearcats from collapse.
"We gave up 400 yards passing, but at the end of the day, we scored more points than them," safety Adrian Witty said. "We are satisfied, but we still have to get better. That is a lot of passing yards, so we have to get better after this weekend and not let it happen again."
Coach Tommy Tuberville was happy that his team accomplished its primary goal of avoiding the big play.
"We only gave up two or three big plays and none for touchdowns, and that's what that offense is about," Tuberville said. "It's about scoring quickly and making you miss tackles and having 40-50 yard runs after the catch. We told our guys they are going to catch them, and you just have to get them on the ground."
Next: at Rutgers, Nov. 16
Game: Louisville 31, Connecticut 10. The Huskies made too many mistakes on both sides of the ball to have a chance at knocking off the Cardinals. Starting quarterback Tim Boyle was held to 133 yards passing and threw three interceptions.
Takeaways: It goes without saying that when you're a winless team taking on a conference rival ranked in the Top 25, you can't turn the ball over five times and possibly hope to win.
Indeed, that was the case on Friday. The Huskies threw three interceptions, fumbled twice and had a punt blocked in the 31-10 loss to the Cardinals, dropping the team to 0-8 and tying the 1977 squad for the worst start in program history.
"You can't have it, especially against this team. The only chance we have is to not beat ourselves," Huskies interim coach T.J. Weist said. "We turned the ball over, gave them early points on the [blocked] punt and gave them momentum on offense and defense. We didn't have a chance. It's a simple as that."
The Huskies now face the task of winning at SMU to avoid the program's worst start ever. But at least Weist feels the effort is there.
"First thing I told them was I was proud of them. And we are as a staff because they gave the effort, they never quit throughout tonight and that's what we look for," Weist said.
Next: at SMU, Nov. 16
Game: Central Florida 19, Houston 14. Houston came within seven yards of pulling off a huge road victory on the road, but a furious comeback fell just short. The Cougars also saw their streak of scoring in every quarter this season end when the Knights blanked them through the opening 15 minutes.
Takeaways: Houston continued its streak of making opponents give the ball away, forcing three Central Florida turnovers as well as blocking a field goal attempt. Ultimately, however, it wasn't enough to knock off the Knights.
The thing we emphasize more than anything in our program, defensively, is creating turnovers. Normally when you win that turnover margin, you win the game," coach Tony Levine said.
But on this day, it wasn't quite enough. The Cougars had four shots in the final minute from the 10-yard line, but a three-yard run and three incompletions ended the threat.
"I give (UCF) a lot of credit. They have a very talented defense and they are not giving up many points this season," Levine said. "We had our chances and there is no blame to be placed."
Next: at Louisville, Nov. 16
Game: Louisville 31, Connecticut 10. The Cardinals took advantage of five Huskies turnovers and returned a blocked punt for a score to ease to victory on the road. Teddy Bridgewater had another strong performance, throwing for 288 yards and a touchdown.
Notes: While the Cardinals took care of business against an overmatched UConn squad, Charlie Strong's team did not get the help it needed elsewhere in the AAC.
Central Florida's victory over Houston didn't eliminate the Cardinals from BCS contention, but it removed the most likely path to the marquee bowl berth. Had the Knights lost to the Cougars, Louisville could have moved into a three-way tie for first with a victory over Houston this week.
Instead, the Knights held off a late Houston charge to earn a 19-14 victory. Since UCF wins any two-way tiebreaker with the Cardinals based on its 38-35 victory at Louisville Oct. 18, the Cards only hope is for Central Florida to lose twice in its last four games. Though UCF plays a pair of road games, they're at non-contenders Temple and SMU.
That means Teddy Bridgewater will likely be ending his college career in a lower-profile bowl game. Considering six NFL teams showed up at a freezing Rentschler Stadium to watch him take on a winless UConn squad on a Friday night, presumably those whose opinions matter will notice him regardless.
Next: vs. Houston, Nov. 16.
Game: Memphis 21, Tennessee-Martin 6. Memphis got all it could handle from the Skyhawks, but scored a pair of touchdowns to pull away at home. Brandon Hayes ran for 105 yards, while Paxton Lynch ran for one touchdown and passed for another.
Takeaways: The Tigers never seem to do things the easy way, and Saturday was no exception. Memphis turned the ball over twice and were penalized 12 times for 123 yards, but scored the final 21 points of the game.
So while coach Justin Fuente wasn't planning on giving the victory back, nor was he eager to throw his team a parade.
"I think one of the biggest mistakes coaches' make is they praise after a victory and admonish after a defeat," Fuente said. "I told our squad I am not in the praising mood after that. I am happy that they won for them but in no way am I ready to jump up and down tell them what a great job they did. We have got to learn from it. We have to use it as a teaching tool and not a yelling tool. We have got to get it fixed and continue to move on. I am happy that we won. We had to learn how to battle through tough football games and find a way to get it done but not overall real pleased."
Expect the Tigers to spend a lot of time this week going over the fundamentals, as Fuente looks to get his team on a roll in the second half of AAC play. To do that, his team will have to rediscover the tenacity that it had been showing in October.
"The biggest thing for me was that we didn't handle the surge of them playing well at the first of the game very well," Fuente said. "I felt like we didn't draw in closer and clinch our fist and put some grit in our eye and go to work. It was first we reversed back to some very old, bad habits and obviously the other team played really well kind of taken it too us. And that is what I am most disappointed in. Penalties, poor execution, and turning the ball over and that are what bother me the most and that is what we have got to get fixed."
Next: at South Florida, Nov. 16
Game: Rutgers was off last week.
Notes: The Scarlet Knights hope to have Paul James back in the lineup when they take on Cincinnati this weekend. He was the NCAA's leading rusher until breaking his leg against Arkansas in September, but he was practicing over the bye week and might be ready to take some snaps against the Bearcats.
Next: vs. Cincinnati, Nov. 16
SOUTHERN METHODIST (3-5)
Game: Cincinnati 28, SMU 25. The Mustangs made things interesting with a 15-point fourth quarter, but couldn't complete the comeback against the Bearcats. Garrett Gilbert continues to put up numbers in losing efforts, throwing for 403 yards and two touchdowns while running for another.
Notes: Self-inflicted wounds continue to plague the Mustangs, who once again left an AAC game lamenting about an opportunity lost.
Southern Methodist couldn't get itself off the field. The defense allowed Cincinnati to convert on 10 of its 16 third down opportunities, which had the added effect of keeping its own high-octane offense on the sidelines.
"They ran the ball so well in getting five or six yards on first down that they were getting a lot of third and shorts," SMU coach June Jones said. "They must have converted four or five QB sneaks. I think it is more us allowing the first down runs. It is a little bit different if it's third and inches compared to when it's third and eight. I don't think we gave up many of those, but we did give up a lot of short third downs."
Special teams didn't do the team any favors, with a pair of missed field goals proving the difference in the final margin. In particular, the Mustangs had an apparent Garrett Gilbert eight-yard touchdown run at the end of the first half nullified by a holding penalty, only to see Chase Hover miss the resulting field goal attempt from 34 yards.
"I kind of knew when we didn't score a touchdown down there in the first half [that we were in trouble]," Jones said. "On the road, you have to score those points and we just didn't do that. I thought the offense did a lot of good things, but we are in a situation where you have to score every time because we can't rely on anything else to carry us through. I thought the kids played hard. We battled like we always have and we finished strong, but we just came up short."
Next: vs. Connecticut, Nov. 16
SOUTH FLORIDA (2-6)
Game: South Florida was off last week.
Notes: The extra week of practice should help true freshman quarterback Mike White get more used to the South Florida offense. White impressed in his first career start against Houston, and this looks to be his team the rest of the season, and likely beyond.
Next: vs. Memphis, Nov. 16
Game: Temple was off last week.
Takeaways: Temple coach Matt Rhule's team might be 1-8, but two of the losses have come in the final minute and three others were by single digits. He's confident the squad is close to a breakthrough, although it will have its hands full this week with first-place Central Florida.
Next: vs. Central Florida, Nov. 16.
NCAAF Team Report - Houston - NOTES, QUOTES
--Cincinnati's 28-25 victory over SMU was locked up by an element that's been missing in action for much of the season -- a running game.
The Bearcats finished with 163 yards on the ground. Hosey Williams led the way with 90, while Tion Green ran six times for 47 yards.
"I thought what we did in the second half was awesome," quarterback Brendon Kay said. "The offensive line and the running backs were pounding it out and took their will away."
Cincinnati's rushing success was no accident. The Bearcats, like everyone else in the conference, knows about prolific SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert. With Cincinnati's secondary not being among the strongest in football, the goal became to reduce his opportunities with the ball.
"We knew that we had to run the football and won the running battle 160 to 40. That gave us the ball seven, eight or nine more minutes, and we just had to keep them off the field," coach Tommy Tuberville said. "We couldn't stop them and nobody has stopped them all year long."
Cincinnati stayed committed to the running game throughout, and it paid off.
"The thing that surprised us is when it got to eight minutes left in the game, we said we have to be able to run the ball no matter what they do," Tuberville said. "Normally when they put an eight-man front up like they did, we throw our passes on the outside and run our offense. But we shut it down and said 'let's run it.' We busted three or four runs and ran the clock."
--Southern Methodist has an uphill battle just to make a bowl game, and the Mustangs aren't a factor in the AAC title race. But quarterback Garrett Gilbert continues to put up numbers in relative obscurity.
With four games left in the regular season, Gilbert already has a school record with seven games of 300 or more yards passing. His four consecutive 300-yard passing games mark another SMU record. He has five games in a row with two or more touchdowns, and he'll end the season at or near the top of the record books.
And yet, that hasn't been enough.
"Garrett played extremely well," Mustangs coach June Jones said after Saturday's loss to Cincinnati. "The receivers made some plays. I think the only thing that I am struggling with is that we are not running the ball very good. That wasn't a factor because Garrett was hitting every pass, but at some point we are going to have to run the ball to win a game. That part of it is kind of frustrating."
The missed opportunity will make it tough for Gilbert to end his career in a bowl game. While the Mustangs' next two games are against struggling teams in Connecticut and South Florida, it closes against Houston and Central Florida and would need a split just to secure six wins and bowl-eligibility.
His opponent last week, at least, will be glad to see him go.
"That kid has a great future in front of him, and I am glad that we don't have to play him again next year," Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said.
--T.J. Weist knew when he took over for the fired Paul Pasqualoni four games into the season that he'd have to win games to keep his job. Four losses later, that's looking less and less likely.
At this point, Huskies fans might settle for a win, period.
The 0-8 start matches the worst in school history, and while Weist can't take the blame for the talent gap between his squad and the top of the AAC, improvement under his watch has been hard to spot.
Against the Cardinals on Friday, Connecticut knew that it had to be flawless on offense. Instead, it turned the ball over five times -- putting its defense in an impossible position. The result was a 31-10 loss.
"Our offense has not been productive, it has not been efficient and you give them any kind of momentum, you just can't recover," Weist said.
What once was unthinkable -- a winless season -- is now in play. The Huskies travel to SMU to take on prolific passer Garrett Gilbert, then head down to Philly to take on a Temple squad that looks better every week. Connecticut will likely be underdogs in both road games, and could bring an 0-10 record into its final two home games against Rutgers and Memphis.
The coach says the effort is there, even if the results are wanting.
"It's the same things, nothing changes in football. You have to keep momentum when you have it," Weist said. "We have to play again next week and we have to just keep pushing."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've been around football a long time and it doesn't get any closer than that. You've got to make a play. We made the play on defense." -- Central Florida coach George O'Leary, on his team's victory over Cincinnati.
NCAAF Team Report - Houston - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
FIVE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM WEEK 11 IN THE AAC:
1. Connecticut might have another new starter under center this week. With Tim Boyle averaging a pair of interceptions per start and having a hard time dealing with the pass rush, either Casey Cochran or Chandler Whitmer could get the nod this weekend.
2. It's a shame that Central Florida and Cincinnati don't play each other this season. The Bearcats have come on strong since losing to South Florida on Oct. 5, and if it runs the table in the regular season it'll be that inexplicable defeat that keeps the team from winning the title.
3. Houston will be without Zach McMillian for the first half of the Louisville game. He was ejected for targeting UCF wide receiver Breshad Perriman.
4. What more does Central Florida have to do win love in the polls? The Knights remain ranked behind Louisville in both major polls this despite their head-to-head victory in Louisville.
5. Despite the easy victory over Connecticut, don't expect this to be a fun week of practice in Louisville. Twelve penalties and numerous dropped passes won't make for a fun film review.