Halftime adjustments throttle Cougars past Golden Knights
Heading into the locker room at halftime Saturday, the Cougars looked lost.
Trailing 21-3 to the University of Central Florida Golden Knights — a team which they obliterated by 49 points a season ago — onlookers couldn’t help but wonder, “What happened?” more than they already have in recent weeks.
“There is a big difference between playing not to lose and playing to win,” Head coach Tom Herman said in the postgame press conference.
Playing not to lose is exactly what this team has fallen a victim to for the better portion of October, a month they would like to soon forget.
A wet game against Navy on Oct. 8 started the Cougars’ free fall. Even if the rain or Navy’s unorthodox offensive style to blame, the Cougars were overmatched and lost 46-40.
After slipping by the Tulsa Golden Hurricane a week later, the team traveled to Dallas on Oct. 22, where they were expected to beat up Southern Methodist University like so many teams have done in recent years. Looking utterly uninterested and disorganized, the Cougars fell to the Mustangs, who defeated their first ranked opponent in five years.
Nothing was going right for the Cougars again on Sunday when empty stands served as a reminder of the team’s recent shortcomings. Senior quarterback and former Heisman Trophy candidate Greg Ward Jr. jogged to the locker room having already thrown three interceptions — partly due to bad luck.
Facing an 18-point deficit, Herman sensed the enormity of the task at hand.
“It is a matter of responding play after play and being mindful and intentional with your thoughts and actions, knowing that every play is its own entity,” Herman said. “For six seconds you have to have a singular focus, a laser-light focus, on what your job is and executing that job. When the play is over, good or bad, take a deep breath, get the signal from the sideline and go do it again. Our guys responded.”
Responded is right.
The team went on to force four takeaways on the same UCF offense that picked apart the Cougars in the first half.
Senior cornerback Brandon Wilson played with a chip on his shoulder on his way to collecting an important sack, forcing a fumble and grabbing a key interception on what looked to be a close play.
“I knew I caught the ball,” Wilson said after the game. “I was just out there doing my job and doing what I was told to do. When you do your job, good things happen.”
Wilson has been hobbled by an ankle injury for the better part of his senior season. Still, he looked like the dynamic playmaker whom Cougar fans have grown accustomed to over the last four years.
‘Live on the edge’
It was Wilson’s playmaking that salvaged the Cougars’ season and helped them to secure the third-largest comeback in UH football history.
Despite having some of his confidence shot in the tumultuous first half, Ward took the field in the final 30 minutes on a mission.
“The main thing I was focusing on was taking care of the ball,” Ward said. “I didn’t do a great job in the first half. The offensive line played a hell of a game. The receivers made plays outside and made blocks on perimeters so our running backs could have some big games in the stretch.”
Ward’s feet rarely fail him and Saturday was no exception.
The senior found holes in the UCF defense that were nonexistent in the first half. Ward scrambled for two scores and found sophomore tight end Romello Brooker for a touchdown on what was just his second catch of the season.
All in all, the Cougars provided a gutsy effort when they needed it most, something that has been missing in recent weeks. Even with the low likelihood of attaining preseason goals, the team put forth an admirable performance when all hope was nearly lost.
Although it may not have been pretty or gone the way they intended, the second half on Saturday could be a catalyst that propels the team to the finish line.
“Most of (the adversity) was self-inflicted, and obviously we have to play better in all four quarters,” Herman said. “We can’t continue to live on the edge like this. I’m going to celebrate this one because we’re banged up, we’re tired and we fought like I’ve never seen them fight.”