Missing star defensive tackle Ed Oliver, the Houston Cougars got a virtuoso performance from quarterback D’Eriq King and the offense, as they topped previously undefeated No. 21 South Florida Bulls, 57-36, in Saturday’s American Athletic Conference showdown at TDECU Stadium.
“They just keep delivering what we ask them to do,” Houston head coach Major Applewhite said. “They keep encouraging each other. They’re a tight-knit group, and I’m just proud of them. And it’s just a bunch of kids from the city that have stayed in town and are working their tails off. And it doesn’t matter the odds, whether there’s an All-American player playing or not. I’m just proud of them.”
The Cougars had a season-best 684 yards of offense, scored more points against South Florida than anyone else in its history, and King set career marks for total yards (553) and total touchdowns (seven).
“He’s everything we thought he could be and more,” Applewhite said about King.
But, it was the defense getting two fourth-quarter turnovers and holding the Bulls to only 28 rushing yards in the second half that helped Houston pull away and secure the win.
The Cougars took advantage of a Nick Watkins interception in the end zone and embarked on their longest drive of the day to take a three-touchdown lead. A 27-yard scoring pass from King to Raelon Singleton accounted for the final tally at the 8:05 mark of the fourth quarter.
A strip sack by David Anenih and fumble recovery by Austin Robinson gave the Cougars’ offense the ball back, they kept the chains moving to clock the final 7:10 of the game.
On the opening drive of the game, the Cougars converted two straight on third-and-long before a jet sweep fake QB keeper play completely fooled the Bulls defense and saw King put an exclamation point on a seven-play, 75-yard drive with a 47-yard TD sprint to give Houston the early 7-0 lead.
After forcing a three-and-out on South Florida’s ensuing possession, Houston’s offense was effective in an up-tempo pace, capping an eight-play, 76-yard drive with another well-executed play call — a 15-yard shovel pass and sweep to the left from King to Marquez Stevenson.
South Florida got itself back in the game on a meticulous 15-play, 79-yard play drive that drained 5:13 off the clock. Bulls halfback Jordan Cronkrite punched in a 1-yard TD run to make the score 14-7 at the 10:33 mark of the second quarter.
It looked like momentum was swinging the Bulls’ way when free safety Nick Roberts intercepted King (although the ball appeared to hit the ground on the pick) on the first play of Houston’s ensuing drive, and South Florida found the end zone on the next play afterward with a 32-yard run by Johnny Ford to tie the score, 14-14.
But, the Cougars utilized their quick-strike abilities on offense to re-take the lead on the next drive. Receptions of 18 yards and 36 yards by Romello Brooker and Courtney Lark, respectively, set up a 38-yard King-to-Stevenson TD connection for a 21-14 lead.
The lead would be somewhat short-lived, however, as another long South Florida drive (13 plays, 83 yards, 4:52) ended with a 17-yard Ford TD run to tie it back up, 21-21, with 3:50 remaining in the first half.
The Cougars once again answered, marching 75 yards on eight plays, with King dropping a 30-yard TD pass in the bucket to Lark, and took a 28-21 lead into the halftime break.
A pair of penalty calls against Houston and a special teams breakdown saw South Florida cut the Cougars’ lead to 28-26 by the 10:47 mark of the third quarter.
An intentional grounding penalty called on King while he was in the end zone resulted in a safety. Then, Houston’s punt that followed was returned 41 yards to set the Bulls up with a short field, and a personal foul facemask penalty against the Cougars gifted South Florida with a 23-yard chip shot field goal drilled through the uprights by Coby Weiss.
But, once again, the Cougars had an answer — this time in the form of some King magic on a gutsy play call that began looking a little dicey.
On fourth-and-7 from the Bulls’ 36-yard line, Houston opted to go for the conversion on a QB draw play. King broke three tackles that would have stopped him short of the first down marker before shaking one more tackle in the open field on a highlight-reel spin move, and then raced to the end zone to push the lead to 35-26.
“The whole time in my head I’m thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got to make a play right here,’” King said. “The offensive line made some great blocks, and I just made a couple of guys miss, and the rest is history.”
A 25-yard Weiss field goal cut the Cougars’ lead to 35-29 at the 4:11 mark of the third quarter, but Houston countered that with a long TD pass and two-point conversion to go up by two touchdowns.
King found Jeremy Singleton for a 52-yard score through the air, and then dialed up some trickery to convert the two-point try with Bryson Smith taking the sweep, feigning a run and flipping a pass to a wide-open Singleton in the end zone.
A 39-yard TD pass from Blake Barnett to Deangelo Antoine cut the lead to 43-36 with 36 seconds remaining in the third quarter, but Houston came back with a touchdown drive of its own.
A 45-yard pass from King to Stevenson helped set up an 11-yard rushing TD by Mulbah Car to push the lead back to 50-36.
Houston (7-1, 4-0 in AAC) will be back in action 6 p.m. next Saturday at SMU (3-5, 2-2).
GALVESTON COUNTY NOTES
With Oliver missing Saturday’s game due to a bruised knee (snapping a streak of 32 straight starts), junior La Marque alum Aymiel Fleming got the start in his place. Fleming finished with six tackles in the game.
“We love (Oliver) to death, we love our boy, but we just want to show the world that it’s not all about him sometimes,” Robinson said. “We come to play as a unit, and I’m very proud of the D-line for stepping up. Flem, Payton (Turner), Jerard (Carter), they did a phenomenal job.”
Junior linebacker Jordan Milburn, a Ball High alum, was one of Houston’s team captains for the coin toss.