If you’re going to take a shot at the king you best not miss, and that’s a lesson No. 6 Houston (5-0, 2-0) imparted to Connecticut (2-3, 0-2) on Thursday night.
UConn, and specifically linebacker Junior Joseph, got a few good hits on Cougar quarterback Greg Ward Jr., and at one point the Huskies even knocked him out of the game… for one play.
Ward Jr. showed toughness and heart in a 42-14 win that will go on his Heisman resume. He flashed his dual-threat ability and kept UConn’s defense off balance all night. He used his feet to pick up yards on the ground against the Huskies but also scrambled to throw, a skill that separates him from most quarterbacks in the nation. Ward extended plays all night against UConn, and his receivers are well versed in getting open when the original play breaks down.
That’s not to say Houston went out and played street ball, though. The Cougars put up 540 total yards, 27 first downs and a 40-of-49 completion rate. Much of that was a credit to Ward, though backup Kyle Postma did get a few series under his belt in the fourth quarter.
Ward completed 32-of-38 passes for 389 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also led Houston in rushing with 12 carries for 65 yards and two touchdowns. Had head coach Tom Herman asked his quarterback to kick field goals, he probably would have knocked a few of those in as well.
Ward was responsible for 448 total yards and five touchdowns on the night. He enabled Houston to take another step towards the College Football Playoff, but his individual performance should keep him in the running for college football’s highest personal honor as well.
He’s now thrown for 1,325 yards and eight touchdowns in 2016 with just two interceptions. He’s also rushed for 178 yards and five scores.
While those numbers don’t really compare to Louisville’s Lamar Jackson — who has thrown for 1,330 yards and 13 touchdowns (3 INT) while rushing for 526 yards and 12 touchdowns — keep in mind that Ward did play a huge role in leading Houston over No. 3 Oklahoma to start the season. That was a Heisman moment if there ever was one.
Jackson’s huge win over No. 2 Florida State likely negates that in the eyes of Heisman voters, but there’s still plenty of season left to play. The point here is that Ward is definitely in the Heisman running and he’ll remain in it as long as he keeps playing the way he played against UConn. It’s also exciting to note that the two stellar quarterbacks will meet in mid-November in what is shaping up to be an epic matchup.
Ward’s play was the story of the game for Houston, but he wasn’t the only player who had a great performance against the Huskies. Somebody had to catch those touchdown passes, and Houston’s wide receiver group was more than up to the task.
Junior wide receiver Linell Bonner was the receiver of the game in that regard, notching 12 receptions for 159 yards and a touchdown. Junior Steven Dunbar also had a good game, catching five passes for 97 yards and a score.
Ward found a way to spread the wealth through the air and Houston’s offense again looked like a well-oiled machine. Senior Chance Allen finished with seven catches for 85 yards and freshman D’Eriq King caught seven for 32. Even senior tight end Tyler McCloskey got into the mix, catching just one pass, but it was for a touchdown.
His touchdown came on a play when Ward took a big hit from UConn’s defense. Still, in the face of pressure he never backed down, and Houston’s offensive numbers soared as a result. Credit has to go to junior running back Dillon Birden as well. He bullied his way into the end zone in the second quarter, breaking the tackle of a much bigger defensive lineman (Birden is only 5-foot-9, 172 pounds).
It was that type of night for Houston.
Defensively the Cougars allowed UConn to put up only 335 total yards. They limited the Huskies to a 3-of-15 rate on third downs. Once again, Houston’s rush defense looked elite, allowing only 62 yards on the ground, and UConn’s two scores came in garbage time.
The Huskies notched a 62-yard touchdown pass down 28-0 with 30 seconds to go in the first half. UConn’s second score came on a one-yard quarterback run midway through the fourth quarter with the team down 42-7.
Houston once again showed that it’s a Power Five team playing in a Group Of Five Conference. Up next for the Cougars is an intriguing showdown with Navy, but don’t expect a letdown from a team which is taking care of business with steadiness and a noticeable lack of late-game drama.