It was a lasting image that will haunt the Houston Cougars (5-1, 2-1 AAC) for the rest of the season. Junior wide receiver Linell Bonner walked alone as the Navy Brigade stormed the field and swarmed around him.
He was the lone Cougar in a sea of uniformed euphoria, almost as if a boulder in the middle of a river. Unranked Navy (4-1, 3-0 AAC) had just defeated No. 6 Houston, 46-40, effectively ending any hopes the Cougars had at representing the Group of Five in the College Football Playoff.
All along it was assumed that Houston would likely have to run the table in order to have a legitimate bid for the CFP, and games against Oklahoma (which Houston beat 33-23 to start the season) and Louisville (which Houston plays in mid-November) were thought of the two main tests for the Cougars in 2016.
Navy was a game that looked like it could be tough — the Midshipmen went 11-2 last season with a win against Pitt in the Military Bowl (their first year in the AAC) and head coach Ken Niumatalolo has had his team playing good football for he past few season — but few, if any predicted a loss.
Well, there was one notable pundit who was backing Navy.
Houston put up 484 yards of total offense compared to Navy’s 382, but the Midshipmen’s option-offense was highly efficient as was senior quarterback Will Worth, who threw for two touchdowns and rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Navy’s defense was also great, forcing the Cougars and specifically quarterback Greg Ward Jr. into uncharacteristic mistakes. Houston turned the ball over three times, all attributed to Ward Jr., who likely saw his shot at the Heisman race slip away.
He completed 32-of-50 passes for 359 yards and three touchdowns, but he was picked off twice and he fumbled twice, losing one.
The 24-Hour Rule
Houston’s bid for the CFP is likely gone, but that doesn’t mean the Cougars’ season is over. They did drop out of the Top 10 of the AP Top 25 to No. 13 (Navy was awarded with the No. 25 spot), but the Cougars still have a few big games left on the schedule, and they still do have a lot to play for.
Mainly, Houston’s bid for the American Athletic Conference title game is still in play. The #HTownTakover did fall to second in the AAC West, behind Navy, but there’s still a lot of football left to be played for both teams. The race for the top spot in the West is far from over, which makes it important that Houston moves on quickly from the loss.
It’s easier said than done, tough, especially considering all that was lost along with it.
Looking ahead at in-conference goals was something Houston head coach Tom Herman did bring up during his Monday press conference.
“Our goals are completely ahead of us. Our goal was not to go undefeated, it was not to just beat Oklahoma, and our goal wasn’t to be ranked in the top ten or five. Our goal is to win our conference,” Herman said. “That goal is still out there. Obviously, we are going to need some help from Navy.
“From a big picture standpoint, I feel like Sunday was a good opportunity to talk about the state of the program and about what we have done in fourteen months. We are 18-2, 5-0 against top 25 teams, and 2-0 against top ten teams. The big picture is still out there that we can go 11-1 with two top five win on our resume regardless of what Navy does. We’ll hope that we get an opportunity at redemption in a conference championship game but until then, we have to take care of our business.”
Herman went on to talk about beating Tulsa, which is Houston’s next opponent, and that’s really all he can do. At this point some of the lofty goals are out, but to allow the disappointment of the upset and the loss of a shot at the playoffs get this team off track in the long-term would be a mistake.
Herman knows that, and that’s the message he needs to continue preaching to his team.
He brought up what he called “The state of the program”, discussing Houston 18-2 record over the past 14 months and the Cougars 5-0 record against Top 25 teams, but if Houston focuses too much on the big-picture it runs the risk of distraction.
The Cougars need to button down the hatches, put their noses to the grindstone and take it one game at a time. Yes, the AAC championship is still a very real possibility as is a great bowl game appearance, but none of that becomes a reality if Houston comes out and suffers another upset. Remember, Tulsa’s no slouch. The Golden Hurricane are 4-1 and 1-0 in conference. Their only loss came against Ohio State, one of the best programs in the entire country. And sure, they lost 48-3, but especially defensively, they made the Buckeyes work pretty hard in the first half of that contest.
A win over Houston would allow Tulsa to jump over the Cougars in the divison rankings and then we’re talking about a whole different season for the Cougars. They’ve already lost their shot at the CFP, but 2016 in no way needs to be a waste.
It’s going to take focus. They got knocked down by Navy, and it’s going to take some focus to get back up off the mat, put the loss in the past and start taking care of business again.
At least according to Bonner, who appeared so lonely in the seconds after the game, that’s exactly what the Cougars are doing.
“We have a 24-hour rule where after 24 hours we can’t think about the game anymore. Win or lose the game is behind us, and we can’t think about it anymore,” he said.