Quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. rushed for two touchdowns and threw for another to lead the Houston Cougars to a 38-24 win over the Florida State Seminoles before a Chick-fil-A Bowl crowd of 71,001 in the Georgia Dome on New Year’s Eve in Atlanta, GA.
The Battle for Bowl Week champion strikes again. In the lore of Chick-fil-A Bowl winners, whatever team that won the Battle of the Bowl Week competition has gone on to win the game. Houston defeated Florida State 200-150 by winning the final event.
Houston didn’t need heroics in the final act, the Cougars struck first and often. The Cougars staff threw in wrinkles to their offense that kept the ‘Noles off-balance for most of the game and produced several scores. “Well, I felt like we’re not going to match up player for player,” said Head Coach Tom Herman. “So we felt like we had to use tempo to our advantage and go fast. And then we had to use some misdirection when we weren’t going fast, we had to make them, conflict them a little bit with their eyes, because they’ve got some fantastic players — first-round draft picks on that team, on defense.”
Up 7-3 through the first, Ward flipped the ball to junior wide receiver Demarcus Ayers on the end around. Naturally, the ‘Noles defense reacted to the speedy receiver. When they reacted, Ayers threw the ball to a wide open Chance Allen in the end zone for a 14-3 lead.
Florida State attempted to answer but the Cougars defense had other ideas. Junior outside linebacker Steven Taylor stripped Dalvin Cook on a tackle and senior safety Trevon Stewart recovered it at the ‘Noles 17.
Ward turned the miscue into points in just three plays. Sophomore wide receiver Donald Gage and Ayers took turns rushing the ball before Ward scampered the final 6 yards for a 21-3 lead late in the second quarter.
Eighteen seconds after the Cougars turned a fumble into a touchdown, the ‘Noles turned it over again. Sean McGuire attempted to go deep on second down but his pass intended for junior receiver Jesus Wilson was a tad bit underthrown and picked off by senior cornerback William Jackson, III at the Houston 26. It would be the first of three interceptions the ‘Noles quarterback would throw during the game.
Florida State’s defense picked up the struggling offense holding the Houston offense to 3 and out. The half would end without either team adding to the scoreboard.
The ‘Noles came out swinging for the fences in the second half. McGuire tightened up his throws on the first drive of the second half completing 4 of 6 passes for 54 of the 59 yards. Cook, who struggled to find running room for most of the game, punched it from 1-yard out. Cook was held to 33-yards on 18 carries. Despite the 4 interceptions and an ankle injury in the first quarter, McGuire had Florida State in the ball game until the very end. The red-shirt junior from Sparta, New Jersey, completed 22 of his 44 passes for 392 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Florida State had plenty of opportunities but the Cougars secondary kept snapping the ‘Noles momentum. Stewart and Jackson each picked off McGuire twice. Both of Stewart’s interceptions ended successive Florida State drives allowing the Cougars to take a 21-10 lead into the final quarter.
There was certainly no quit in the Atlantic Coast Conference runner’s up. McGuire threw two touchdown passes to close the gap. He threw a 65 yarder to Travis Rudolph and a 14 yarder to Jesus Wilson to close within 7, 31-24.
No sooner had the ‘Noles closed the gap than the defense delivered a hard hit on Ward that knocked the Cougars playmaker out of the game again, this time for good with nearly 5 minutes left to play in the game. Unfortunately, Houston’s backup was more than ready to assume the reins. “One of our four pillars of success is what we call competitive focus, and a lot of teams talk about the backups and third-stringers preparing as if your number could be called at any moment,” said Herman. When sophomore Kyle Postma’s number was called, he stepped up and guided the Cougars to yet another touchdown. Postma broke off a 29-yard run down to the 2-yardline. The clutch play set up a touchdown run by senior running back Ryan Jackson.
Every time the ‘Noles thought they were making a run, the Cougars had an answer. “You know, that this team has kind of done that all year,” said Herman. He credited his team’s resilience to the level of training they have received all year. “They’ve found ways to, when their backs are against the wall, to really rise or really what we say, it’s, I think, a Navy Seal term — you don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to the level of your training. And the level of these guys’ training is a really, really high level.
William Jackson’s second interception of the game ended Florida State’s final drive of the game and hope for a miracle. For his two interceptions and 10 tackles, Jackson was named the Defensive MVP of the Game. Ward received the Offensive MVP for his performance.