The Houston Cougars survived Cincinnati on a short week thanks to a stellar performance from quarterback Greg Ward Jr.
Unlike the last big Cougars' win, however, Ward won't be following that with a week on the sidelines when they travel to San Marcos, Texas, to take on Texas State at Jim Wacker Field at Bobcat Stadium on Saturday night.
Ward, who finds himself in the conversation for the Heisman Trophy after passing for 321 yards and two touchdowns in Houston's 33-23 season opening upset of then No. 3-ranked Oklahoma, took a lot of hits in the 40-16 win over the Bearcats last Thursday night.
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The No. 6 Cougars won despite struggling most of the way, and the lopsided final score doesn't reflect how the game was played. Houston trailed 16-12 early in the fourth quarter before scoring the final 28 points on two Ward touchdown runs and two defensive scores.
"Credit to the leaders on the team," Cougars coach Tom Herman said. "We were down by four points in the fourth quarter, and there wasn't a difference on the sideline as if we were up by 16 on Oklahoma."
Ward sat out the Lamar game two weeks ago to rest his shoulder after the victory over Oklahoma. But as Herman noted in his weekly press conference, this week's opponent, Texas State (1-1), is not Lamar. It's a quality foe that the Cougars can't look past, so Ward will take it easier in practice during the week in order to be ready to go on Saturday.
"He's one of the best competitors I've ever been around, and he's taken a lot of big hits in his day," Herman said. "Once he got hit in the shoulder, yeah it hurt, but did his arm fall off? No. Was he able to throw another pass? Yes. That kind of gave him some confidence, like 'hey what these doctors and coaches have been telling me is true.'"
Ward, who owns a nation's best streak of 16 straight wins as a starter, went through a full practice Sunday, including a 7-on-7 session that he "threw a bunch and threw it well.
"It's a volume thing, not what kinds of throws," Herman added. "If he feels like it's too much then we'll settle down, and if he feels like he can handle it we'll give him everything he can handle."
It will be a challenging week for the Cougars, and not just because Texas State opened with a victory over Ohio before dropping a decision to Arkansas. Former Houston director of football recruiting Adrian Mayes is now the offensive line coach for coach Everett Withers at Texas State.
"That will be a big challenge for us," Herman said. "We are having to change every signal, call and check. We are trying to get ready to win a game, and yet we are having to spend this amount of time to mask what we are doing. It's not a matter of only changing the plays. It's a matter of what we are calling our plays, how we are communicating and signaling them."
Herman and Withers have their own history together, at previous coaching stops at Texas and Ohio State.
"(We worked together) two years (at Ohio State), and way back when I was a graduate assistant at Texas he was a DB coach there, Herman said. "I consider him a close friend. My wife and his wife are really close friends. They got to know each other quite a bit in Columbus and continue to talk to this day. We were excited when Everett got the opportunity to move back to the great state of Texas and excited to see him off to a good start."
Texas State opened the season and the Withers era with a 56-54 triple overtime win at Ohio. The Bobcats fell behind 35-0 at halftime in an eventual 42-3 loss at Arkansas last week.
Although Ward gets most of the national attention, Houston's defense has been a major reason for the hot start. The Cougars lead the nation in rushing defense, allowing an average of just 38.3 yards per game, and held Oklahoma's potent ground game to just 70 yards. Senior linebacker Steven Taylor leads the unit and has 5.5 sacks through three games, as well as an interception return for a touchdown.