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Monday, February 6, 2023

Football

With Ward at quarterback, Cougars discover their identity


After inserting sophomore Greg Ward as starting quarterback, the Cougars have found a balanced offensive identity. |  Justin Tijerina/The Cougar

After inserting sophomore Greg Ward as starting quarterback, the Cougars have found a balanced offensive identity. | Justin Tijerina/The Cougar

At last, the Cougars have an offensive identity.

A seemingly meaningless quote from head coach Tony Levine during his weekly press conference  signifies a shift in strategy leading up to the Cougars’ Saturday matchup against South Florida.

“We’ve got to be balanced – we’ve got to be able to throw it or run it,” Levine said.

Before this week, if you asked Levine if he was looking to get more carries for his running backs? He’d typically respond with something like “we’re just going to take what the defense gives us.”

Ask the offensive coordinator if they’re going to start attacking opponents with the deep ball. You’ll probably get a variation of “it depends on the types coverages we see. We take what we can get from the defense,” as a soundbite.

Question a quarterback on spreading the ball around to different receivers and he’ll probably say “the coverage dictated who got the ball. If the defense gives us certain matchups we’ll take it.”

Good public relations training aside, the message emanating from UH (4-3, 2-1)  was that its offensive playcalling was dependent on the skills and strategy of the opposing defense. Their malleable gameplan meant that even avid fans couldn’t be sure how the Cougars would try move the ball that week.

In other words, the Cougars haven’t had an offensive identity since Case Keenum was piloting the Air Raid. But that was before sophomore Greg Ward succeeded John O’Korn as starting quarterback during a 28-24 win against Memphis on the road.

Before Ward was elevated to starter in week six, the Cougars’ leading rusher Kenneth Farrow averaged seven rushes and 26 yards per game in losses. In wins, Farrow averaged 13.5 carries and 121.5 yards per game.

O’Korn’s attempts fluctuated too. Though he only played for about one half against Central Florida before he was relieved by Ward, O’Korn put up 26 attempts. During a dominating win over Grambling State, O’Korn tossed it only 24 times.

However, since Ward became the starter the numbers have since stabilized. Even though two games is a small sample size, the foundation of a balanced offense that can dictate its terms to teams in the American Athletic Conference has formed  a notion that’s not lost on Farrow.

“We’ve been getting better at doing what we do, and hopefully we can get to that point where it doesn’t matter what the defense does and just do what we want to do,” Farrow said. “And as long as we keep preparing we should be able to do that.”

Sure, Farrow traded one cliche (taking what the defense gives) for another (we’re going to do what we do), but it symbolized the change that the numbers proved.

During the team’s 31-10 victory against Temple and road win over Memphis, UH’s top two rushers Farrow and junior Ryan Jackson have 28 and 27 carries respectively while Ward has 29 carries, including a 64 yard touchdown run. The Cougars are also keeping Ward’s passing attempts around 30.

For the Cougars, inserting Ward at quarterback provided a repeatable offensive formula that couldn’t have come at a better time.

Before Ward, the Cougars were 2-3, and a season that began with a lot of hype was withering away — even a bowl appearance was in doubt. Now, the Cougars have the foundation of an offense that can match their ballhawking defense.

With the triple threat of Ward, Farrow and Jackson out of the backfield, UH has the ability to protect its defense by controlling the football with the running game and not turning the football over.

This version of the Air Raid is different, and it should be, because the current cast of characters is different. Instead of a plethora of quick passes that put UH’s receivers in space, the Cougars have a physical running game and a quarterback that can improvise and create big plays.

With a defense that leads the American in scoring defense (17.9) that’s a winning formula.

“In my seven years at the University of Houston, I don’t remember time of possession in a game being 43 minutes,” Levine said. “It was good to see. We were very productive on offense, did not turn the ball over. We (forced turnovers) four times defensively and on special teams. We played a solid game.”

This isn’t your father’s Air Raid, and that’s a good thing for UH.

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