Greg Ward Jr.

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CFT Previews: Las Vegas Bowl Presented by Geico

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WHO: Houston (9-3) vs. San Diego State (10-3)
WHAT: The 25th Las Vegas Bowl
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC
WHERE: Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, Nevada
THE SKINNY: The Las Vegas Bowl may be the scene for one of the top bowl games in the month of December considering some of the talent to be put on display. Mountain West Conference champion San Diego State rides into their second Las Vegas Bowl on the strength of star running back Donnel Pumphrey, while Houston comes in with Major Applewhite making his head coaching debut with players like quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and All-American freshman defensive lineman Ed Oliver to count on.

Truth be told, the Las Vegas Bowl is a far cry from the New Year’s Six hopes both Houston and San Diego State had for much of the season. Houston padded their profile with a pair of victories over top five teams this season, Oklahoma and Louisville, but stumbled three times in the American Athletic Conference to fall out of contention for a second straight conference title and blocking their chance of a return to the New Years Six bowl lineup. For a program that started the season being discussed as a potential College Football Playoff contender, playing in the Las Vegas Bowl is clearly not where the Cougars wanted to be. San Diego State was in the mix for the New Year’s Six for a while as well until a blowout loss in the regular season finale all but knocked the Aztecs out of the running even if Western Michigan (who will play Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl) had stumbled.

The Las Vegas Bowl will offer a contrast in offensive styles. San Diego State owns the nation’s seventh-most productive rushing offense with Pumphrey being one of just two players to rush for 2,000 yards this season (2,018 rushing yards; D’Onta Foreman of Texas being the other with 2,028 rushing yards). Pumphrey should end the season as the nation’s leading rusher as he trails Foreman by just 10 yards entering the Las Vegas Bowl. Houston will be more likely to take to the air with Ward Jr. having already passed for 3,328 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions this season. Although Tom Herman has left Houston for Texas, it should be expected new head coach Applewhite will continue the same offensive philosophies he used as offensive coordinator. Houston’s passing game will look to avoid making turnovers against a San Diego State defense that leads the nation with 22 interceptions.

This one should be good. You will want to make sure you are watching the final game played by Pumphrey and Ward Jr.

THE PREDICTION: Houston 32, San Diego State 29

Great American Upset: Navy torpedoes No. 6 Houston’s playoff hopes, 46-40

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Navy (4-1, 3-0 AAC) scored 17 points off three turnovers by No. 6 Houston (5-1, 2-1 AAC) and wore down the Cougars defense with their signature triple-option offense in a 46-40 upset that could be a game-changer in the Group of Five conversation. The result also likely sinks Houston’s playoff hopes.

Houston’s chance to potentially tie the game likely slipped out of the end zone just as the football being snapped to the punter got by him and out the back of the end zone, awarding Navy a free two points with just under six minutes to play. The safety gave Navy a 10-point lead. Special teams cost Houston on a fourth quarter touchdown when an extra point attempt was blocked, giving the Midshipmen an eight-point lead.

Navy seemed to take the upper hand in the third quarter, however, with a touchdown on their first possession of the half. Houston fumbled away the opening possession of the half when Greg Ward Jr. lost the ball while being sacked, setting Navy up at the Houston 41-yard line. Will Worth tossed a 17-yard touchdown to Daryll Bonner to give Navy a 27-20 lead. Houston’s next offensive series ended quickly when Josiah Powell intercepted a pass from Ward and ran 34 yards for another touchdown.

With a 14-point lead, Navy could set the pace for the remainder of the game, but they were not done scoring. Navy would score one more touchdown and then pick up the two points on the botched Houston punt. Houston came up with a tough fourth down stand with under six minutes to play, but could do nothing with the football before the punt team had their costly mistake.

Navy’s Worth rushed for 116 yards and a score and completed three of his five pass attempts for 76 yards and two more scores. Houston’s Ward ended his day with

It had been a long time since Navy won a game against a top 10 team at home in Annapolis. The last time it happened was November 17, 1984 when they stunned No. 2 South Carolina, 38-21.

Make no mistake about it. This loss is a tough pill to swallow for Houston if the goal was reaching the College Football Playoff. It may not necessarily be a knockout punch for the playoff, but it leaves Houston in need of quite a bit of help around the country in addition to the need to run the table the rest of the season (including a home date against Louisville). Each season has a different story play out, but if one loss can be enough to take a power conference team out of the playoff picture, it puts a Group of Five team further back in the rearview mirror. Even one as good as Houston. But what if Houston does run the table and does win the AAC? What if Oklahoma wins the Big 12 with a 10-2 record, which includes a loss to Houston? Well, maybe Houston isn’t quite out of the picture just yet. It may be a reach, but Houston is not quite buried just yet.

But for now, Houston will still need help just to play for the AAC championship, and Navy shows no reason to believe they may let up in conference play. The Midshipmen are now 3-0 in the AAC and own the crucial head-to-head tiebreaker with Houston. Navy still has some conference challenges ahead of them (vs. Memphis, @ USF, vs. Tulsa), but Navy is now has a stake in controlling how the AAC West plays out, along with Memphis and Tulsa. Houston does not.

In fact, Navy is now in position to start thinking how they can be the Group of Five team playing in the New Years Six. With San Diego State going down last week, Navy now climbs the ladder past Houston and arguably closer to undefeated Boise state.

Navy will look to keep this run going next week on the road against East Carolina. Meanwhile, Houston will look to take out their frustrations on Tulsa next Saturday evening at home.

Houston hangs on for Peach Bowl victory over Florida State

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The debut season for Tom Herman as a head coach could not have gone too much better. No. 18 Houston (13-1) capped a dream season with a 38-24 victory over No. 9 Florida State (10-3) in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl to kickoff the New Years Six on New Year’s Eve. Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. passed for 238 yards and a touchdown and ran for two touchdowns and 67 yards in the win, although he was knocked out of the game late in the fourth quarter. That forced Houston to close out the win with backup quarterback Kyle Postma, who picked up key third down conversion and led the Cougars to a cherry on top touchdown.

Houston’s offense shined against Florida State. The Cougars put together an evenly distributed 452 yards of offense, including 191 rushing yards, and lost the football just once. It was Houston’s defense that really stepped up and took Florida State out early. The Cougars forced five turnovers in the game and shut down talented running back Dalvin Cook in the first half. Cook ended his afternoon with just 33 rushing yards and a touchdown, and he was knocked out in the final two minutes after being popped by two Houston defenders. Florida State’s offensive line could not provide much room to run though, and that continued from start to finish.

Houston also knocked out quarterback Sean Maguire for a brief stretch in the first half, leaving Florida State to play briefly with a third string quarterback (J.J. Cosentino) who did not even appear on the team’s depth chart for the game. Everett Golson was not with the team due to a death in the family). Maguire did pass for nearly 400 yards and two touchdowns, but he was under pressure plenty of times and was intercepted four times. Florida State was limited to just 17 first downs in the game.

Houston took a 21-3 lead into halftime and led 24-10 in the fourth quarter when the teams began exchanging touchdowns on the scoreboard. Florida State’s offense appeared to be taking advantage of a tirewd Houston defense, but the Cougars always seemed to have an answer waiting.

At least someone behind Florida State’s Twitter account had a sense of humor. Referencing an earlier loss to Georgia Tech, Florida State made a resolution for the new year:

Of course, one of the College Football Playoff games will be played in the Peach Bowl next year…

(Also, Florida State is scheduled to play Alabama in a season-opening game in Atlanta in 2017, but enough about that…)

Houston was clearly the top Group of Five program this season, and having Herman come to guide the program coming off a national championship as an Ohio State assistant helped the Cougars take a giant step forward as a program. With Herman already lined up to return to Houston in 2016, Houston’s run as a dominant Group of Five program is just getting started. Houston is currently lining up a very talented recruiting class, one that would make even some power conference programs envious.

Florida State will open the 2016 season in Orlando when the Seminoles clash with Ole Miss on a neutral field on September 5. Expect Florida State to still remain one of the top teams in the ACC in 2016 with plenty of talent to work with and perhaps another strong recruiting class being signed. The ACC Atlantic Division could very well be a race between Florida State and Clemson, although Louisville may be in the hunt as well. This may have been a second straight step back for Jimbo Fisher and Florida State (yes, they were undefeated in the regular season in 2014), but the Seminoles will not be likely to continue down a steep decline.

Houston will also open the 2016 season with a bit of a high profile matchup. Houston will kick off the 2016 season in NRG Stadium in Houston against the Oklahoma Sooners, defending Big 12 champions and College Football Playoff participant this season. As with most Group of Five programs, this will be a tremendous opportunity for Houston to assert itself as the top Group of Five program out of the gates, and it figures to be as good an opportunity as any for Ward. to establish himself in the early field of Heisman Trophy candidates.

CFT Previews: Peach Bowl

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WHO: No. 9 Florida State (10-2) vs. No. 18 Houston (12-1)
WHAT: The 48th Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
WHERE: Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia
WHEN: 12:00 pm ET, Dec. 31 on ESPN
THE SKINNY: Florida State’s 2015 season may have been a step back from the national championship bar it set the past few years, but the Seminoles are still back in the New Years Six line-up despite filling plenty of hole son defense and switching quarterbacks this season. Dalvin Cook has been the rock for the Florida State offense this season and he should be the key player for Florida State against Houston in the Peach Bowl. Cook rushed for 1,658 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. The sophomore has rushed for at least 100 yards in all but three games this season, and one of those was because he was injured. In the season finale against Florida, Cook went for 183 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 194 yards and a touchdown in a loss at Clemson, a game in which he basically put the entire offense on his back in a 23-13 loss.

Florida State’s defense has not been particularly great this year, but they have been good at holding down opponents from scoring too much. The most points allowed in a game was 24 points, (to Miami). Even in their losses, Florida State held Clemson to 23 points and Georgia Tech to 22 points, and Georgia Tech’s game-winning touchdown came on a bizarre special teams play. Simply put, Florida State’s defense is still a challenge even in a perceived down year. They will, however, be put to the test by Houston.

With first-year head coach Tom Herman at the helm, Houston went 12-1 and won its first American athletic Conference championship. The former Ohio State assistant turned in quite the performance as a head coach by turning quarterback Greg Ward Jr. into a massive dual-threat option. Ward led the Cougars with 1,041 rushing yards and 19 rushing touchdowns to go with his 2,590 passing yards and 16 touchdowns. The question is whether or not Ward will be able to do it all against Florida State. This is a bit of a different situation compared to Florida State’s last bout against a non-power conference opponent in a big bowl game. Unlike Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois, Houston’s Ward can do some damage through the air if his offensive line protects him. He also has a top target to throw to with Demarcus Ayers (1,140 yards, six touchdowns). Outside of Clemson, Houston may have the best offense Florida State has faced all season.

THE PREDICTION: Florida State 24, Houston 23

Houston can make New Years reservations as AAC Champs

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A year after helping Ohio State win a national championship, Houston head coach Tom Herman will once again be coaching in one of the College Football Playoff’s New Years Six bowls. The first-year head coach coached No. 19 Houston (12-1, 7-1 AAC) to its first American Athletic Conference championship on Saturday with a home 24-13 victory in the conference championship game against No. 22 Temple (10-3, 7-1 AAC), essentially clinching the spot in the New Years Six reserved for the highest-ranked conference champion from the Group of Five.

Houston took advantage of an early Temple turnover on the game’s opening possession to pick up an early touchdown, and the up-tempo offensive style of the Cougars combined with the athletic skill at key positions proved to take a toll against Temple. Houston had speed combined with an efficient quarterback and steady hands from receivers all working in its favor. That had been the story of the season for Houston, who might have been undefeated if not for seeing starting quarterback Greg Ward Jr. miss playing time in a road game at UConn a couple of weeks ago.

Ward led all players with 148 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the win. Houston was actually out-gained by Temple (385-345), which made Temple’s two turnovers in the first quarter even more important. Houston converted Temple’s game-opening fumble into a quick touchdown, and Temple’s late rally in the fourth quarter was doomed by a fumbled snap on a fourth down play.

Now it just remains to be seen which bowl game Houston will be attending. The Peach Bowl in Atlanta appears to be a possible destination, but a possible matchup against Ohio State in another bowl game would make for a fascinating storyline. That, of course, assumes Ohio State is not picked to play in the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes could be a possible pick of the game ahead of the Big Ten championship game loser.

Temple will get a chance to end their season with a win. After being bowl-eligible last season but not selected, the 10-win Owls will miss out on a big bowl game but still represent the AAC in one of the conference’s top bowl destinations. That likely results in a trip to Florida with the St. Petersburg Bowl and Miami Beach Bowl possible destinations. The Boca Raton Bowl could also be in play.