Forward-focused Houston locked on UConn
HOUSTON -- Players and coaches for sixth-ranked Houston might not use the exact phrase to describe Thursday's contest against UConn at TDECU Stadium.
Whether classified as a "revenge game" publicly or not, expect the Cougars to be looking for a little payback against the only team to beat them in 2015 while they're the focus of college football's national spotlight.
The Cougars (4-0, 1-0 in the American Athletic Conference) were denied a perfect season last year when UConn posted a 20-17 home victory on Nov. 15 when Houston was No. 13 in the country. The Cougars went on to win the AAC Championship game over Temple and then waylaid Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and have been perfect so far in 2016.
Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. played sparingly in last year's upset because of an ankle injury while star linebacker Elandon Roberts was ejected early due to a targeting call.
"There's some added motivation for this one," Houston coach Tom Herman said Monday at his weekly media availability. "We don't have much to talk about, but I do believe that our returning players on our team are better than they were last season. We don't see this game as a chance for redemption but there is a bit of internal sense of liability, of atonement, to right some of the wrongs that occurred."
Houston has lost just one football game in Herman's 18-game tenure in the Bayou City, but he said the team won't focus on what happened last season.
"It's not something you forget about," Houston defensive end Cameron Malveaux said. "We were 10-0 and on a roll. Being crushed like that stayed with us, but we are looking at it as another step towards our goal of getting to the conference championship."
Houston comes into Thursday's game off a 64-3 walloping of Texas State on the road in which the Cougars played a nearly flawless game. Houston outgained Texas State 563-142 (429-82 in the first half), outrushed the Bobcats 243-33 and had 32 first downs to Texas State's eight. The Cougars scored on their first seven possessions while fashioning a 43-3 halftime lead and had no turnovers or penalties.
"I was proud of the strides that the offensive made - they played well," Herman said. "It wasn't that they were playing awful. In the Cincinnati game (on Sept. 15), we were shooting ourselves in the foot in critical situations. The offense did a much better job (against Texas State) finding a rhythm and finishing drives. "
UConn (2-2, 0-1 American) heads to Houston on the heels of a 31-24 loss at home to Syracuse on Sept. 24 in which the Huskies owned significant advantages in time of possession (38:29-21:31), total plays (91-66) and rushing yards (144-62).
Syracuse receiver Amba Etta-Tawo amassed 270 yards via 12 catches and two first-quarter touchdowns and UConn quarterback Bryant Shirreffs threw a pick-six late in the third quarter that all but doomed the Huskies.
"We had a couple of plays that created, really, a 21-point gift - and you can't win like that," UConn coach Bob Diaco said.
"Saturday's game was tough because we can see how close these games are and how good we've become. There's still been a few moments that have created losing and prevented winning. It's not a complacent attitude for sure. The team has gotten better every week in all three phases. For some reason, in all four games, we have had a few explosive plays in the passing games. That's not a characteristic of how we play. Those plays have made the games harder than they need to be."
Diaco understands that his team will have its hands full with Ward, who passed for 289 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 39 yards and another score in just over two quarters of play against Texas State.
"Ward has great pocket presence and utilizes movement back there to create opportunities - he's not just scrambling to run," Diaco said. "He puts their offense into good plays and has high intelligence about how to run their offense. He's one of the premier quarterbacks in the nation."
Houston opened as a 24½ point favorite to win the grudge match with UConn. But Diaco knows his team will not back down and is buoyed by the win last year against Houston, no matter the circumstances.
"We are tough minded group and one that believes in itself," Diaco said. "There is great clarity and strong leadership on this team."