Sometimes it takes a few tries to get that car engine running first thing in the morning. That’s the way the University of Houston offense was on Saturday.
But once quarterback Greg Ward Jr., running back Kenneth Farrow, and receiver Demarcus Ayers sparked the ignition, there was no stopping the No. 21 Cougars on the way to their seventh victory of the season: a 59-10 dismantling of UCF in Orlando, Fla.
If this was a letdown for Houston (7-0, 4-0 American Athletic Conference), it was brief. After trailing 10-7, the Cougars scored 24 minutes in a span of 3½ minutes to demonstrate once again that they are a legitimate candidate for a New Year’s Day game – if not more.
It is the fifth time this season the Cougars won by 21 points or more.
Farrow was the star, both statistically and physically. He was a bulldozer on his way to 167 yards and three touchdowns. Farrow who led the AAC with seven 100-yard games last season, scored on a 26-yard TD run with 2:26 left before halftime to give Houston the lead.
Houston cornerback Brandon Wilson scored on an 85-yard fumble return on the third play of the game. But the Cougars aren’t accustomed to that approach when it comes to taking the early lead. Prior to Saturday, Houston had scored on its opening offensive drive in all six games this season.
UCF, still winless in this disappointing season, tied the game on a 46-yard pass from Justin Holmon to Tristan Payton late in the first quarter. The Knights then went ahead on a 48-yard field goal by Matthew Wright.
“That was very adverse conditions in terms of being in a place we haven’t been yet this year, being down 10-7,” Houston head coach Tom Herman said in his postgame news conference. “The offense punted on our first few drives which was not indicative of the way we have played so far.”
But Herman, in his first season after leaving his spot as offensive coordinator at Ohio State, obviously has this Houston team prepared for any situation. At 7-0, he is off to the second best start in Houston history. John Jenkins won his first eight in 1990.
“I think it’s great to see the guys take their training and put it to use,” Herman said. “We train and teach them, we spend an inordinate amount of time on how to respond to adversity. They took that training really well. Really, it’s just a matter of taking a deep breath and being very mindful.”
But within that deep breath, Herman has a unique philosophy.
“We tell them not to be primal,” he said. “The primal human instinct is to freak out and do things that you’re not trained to do. We want to make sure that our guys, even when faced with a tremendous amount of adversity are mindful, take a deep breath, and focus on the next play.
“Doing something that is outside of yourself never works. What works, what’s 100 percent, undefeated, is going back to your fundamentals and playing with fanatical effort and purpose for the guy next to you. I think our guys did that.”
That’s pretty deep stuff. And it illustrates why Herman is one of the bright, young prospects in the coaching field.
After Farrow put Houston ahead, Ward Jr. scored on a 3-yard run and Ty Cummings kicked a 34-yard field goal that gave the Cougars a 24-10 lead at halftime.
Farrow opened the third quarter with a 30-yard touchdown run and by that time the Cougars were rolling with a 31-10 lead. UCF (0-8, 04 AAC) slumped and appeared defeated in front of a small home crowd.
“I think some of it has to do with lack of strength and the youth,” UCF coach George O’Leary said. “The other part is mental toughness. Bad things are going to happen and normally you just recoup and the older kids get that, but we don’t have a lot of them.
“I think too many easy things occurred today. I still think we were in the game for the first half. I think in the second half we didn’t move the ball and the defense was out there too much. We didn’t have enough playmakers today. They ran plays and we didn’t tackle.”
UCF entered with a four-game winning streak over Houston and out-gained the Cougars 22-214 in the first half. But the biggest thing the Knights did early was put pressure on Ward and force him into a jittery start.
Ward, who eventually adjusted, finished with 10 rushes for 46 yards and a touchdown. He completed 16-of-23 passes for 210 yards and no interceptions. Ward now has the AAC record with 15 rushing touchdowns this season.
UCF wide receiver Pete DiNovo had worked on the scout team all week to give the Knights a good look at Ward’s abilities. It worked for a while, but Houston had the poise and UCF didn’t.
“It’s tough when you’re losing like that,” UCF wide receiver Taylor Oldham told reporters. “There’s nothing really to say. We’re losing. We are 0-8 now. We’ve got to keep fighting.