Houston upset No. 15 Navy 52–31 to earn a spot in the American Athletic Conference title game and move toward a New Year's Six bowl berth
After watching its undefeated season slip away in last week’s 20–17 loss at Connecticut, Houston bounced back in a major way on Black Friday. The Cougars routed No. 15 Navy 52–31 with a performance that was dominant from start to finish.
Houston never trailed and outgained the Midshipmen 555 yards to 459. Its defense held senior quarterback and dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate Keenan Reynolds largely in check. This was the type of outing that plenty of Power 5 athletic directors will point to in the coming weeks while discussing Houston’s Tom Herman as their potential coach of the future, a storyline that could dominate this year’s coaching carousel.
It was also a game that should serve as a reminder: No matter what happens with Herman, the former Ohio State offensive coordinator who has worked wonders in his debut season in Houston, let’s take a second to appreciate this Cougars team he has led. In addition clinching the American Athletic Conference West Division title Friday, it has solidified its status as one of the most explosive groups fans will see all year.
Take Greg Ward Jr., for starters. The dual-threat quarterback put up pretty good numbers in 2014 but has become an absolute force as a junior this fall. He entered Friday’s game having accounted for 3,004 total yards (2,194 passing, 810 rushing) with 29 touchdowns, and he torched the Midshipmen to the tune of 391 yards (308 passing, 83 rushing) with four scores. Ward’s flashiest moment came when he spun out of the grasp of two Navy defenders en route to a breathtaking five-yard touchdown run. But his ability was on clearest display during Houston’s 96-yard scoring drive early in the fourth quarter, when he rushed for 11 yards on a critical third-and-10 to keep momentum on the Cougars’ sideline and put the game out of reach.
Or take junior receiver Demarcus Ayers. The 5’11”, 190-pounder has made at least five catches in every game this season and was brilliant against Navy. He finished with eight receptions for 161 yards, headlined by a 62-yard one-handed catch-and-run that was so stunning it overshadowed his 29-yard throwing touchdown on a double pass.
The Houston defense has been the weaker of the Cougars’ units this season, but even it rose to the occasion Friday. Navy’s triple-option attack came into this contest averaging 348.4 rushing yards per game, second in the FBS, but it was limited to 147 yards on 38 carries, a yards-per-clip mark of just 3.9.
Navy entered this week as the frontrunner to secure the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six big-money bowl slot. Houston proceeded to unrelentingly take that crown over the span of 60 minutes.
Herman is going to be a man in high demand over the coming weeks, and for good reason: He has lifted Houston from the middle of the pack to the thick of contention, and his offense has transitioned seamlessly from the Big Ten to the AAC. And while Houston has taken steps toward retaining him—it recently approved an increase in his salary from $1.3 million to $3 million—big-name programs will come calling. Could he be the man to take the reins at South Carolina? Missouri? USC?
Still, following Houston’s latest masterpiece, let’s take some time to acknowledge what this team has accomplished. Little was expected out of this Cougars group back in August, and all it has done is start 10–0, beat two ranked teams and take down Louisville, Cincinnati and Vanderbilt.
Even better: With the American championship game approaching, it isn’t done yet.