As a rule, I try to push back against over relying on ‘mystique’ and things that are hard to quantify.
But sometimes you must acknowledge that one big performance can have an impact much larger than you could ever try to fit into a box score or any advanced statistical analysis.
On an October night in Memphis, Tennessee making his first career start at QB Greg Ward Jr. proved he could be the kind of dynamic signal caller Coog fans hadn't seen since Case Keenum.
Ward’s numbers from this game wouldn’t jump off the page at you, but I believe on that night his teammates and the UH fan base realized he could be special.
Even if national success and an NY6 bowl win didn’t come for another year, this game was the first 'notch in the belt' of a future school legend.
Leading into the Game:
To say the 2014 Cougar football season had not gone well to this point might be too kind.
Head coach Tony Levine had bought himself some goodwill with a 2013 season played entirely off campus during TDECU Stadium's construction. The team exceeded most reasonable expectations with 8 wins, despite being very young on both sides of the ball.
All that goodwill evaporated after the Coogs were demolished 27-7 by UTSA in the first ever game played at TDECU Stadium. The final score didn’t do justice to what a thorough thrashing the Roadrunners laid on the Coogs.
Incumbent starting QB John O’Korn regressed dramatically from a promising freshman season. O'Korn was benched mid game the week prior against UCF for Greg Ward Jr after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty where he threw the ball at an opposing defender after a play. Ward's move back to QB was somewhat of a surprise after the staff switched him to receiver in the prior offseason.
Against UCF Ward got the Coogs back into a game they’d been losing by double digits and if not for a fumble at the pylon would have led the team to a come from behind win. The flashes dynamism and poise (and O’Korns notable lack of either) was enough to earn the starting nod against Memphis.
The main target of Cougar fan frustration was OC/QB coach Travis Bush. Some eyebrows were raised after the 2013 season Levine immediately promoted Bush from within after the previous OC left for TCU. Bush was the interim OC after the 1-game tenure of Mike Nesbitt in 2012 and certainly hadn't done enough to earn an automatic promotion without any outside candidates being considered.
In the 5 games prior to this one the Coogs only broke 25 points against a sorry UNLV team and FCS Grambling State.
The opposing Memphis Tigers had gotten off to a bright start, winning their conference opener against Cincy 41-14, led by promising 3rd year sophomore QB Paxton Lynch.
Like the Coogs they had a 3-2 overall record, but with a dramatically different strength of schedule. The Tigers lost 42-35 at a UCLA team that ended up finishing in the AP top 25 and 24-3 on the road to the best Ole Miss team of the 21st century (also an AP top 25 team at season's end).
Former TCU assistant Justin Fuente was in his 3rd year as head coach and appeared on the verge of turning around a Tiger football program that underachieved most of its long history.
Nothing about how this game started would have encouraged any Cougar fan in attendance at the Liberty Bowl or following along remotely.
Here’s how all of Houston’s 1st quarter drives went:
· 3 plays, 1 yard- Interception
· 3 plays, 6 yards- Punt
· 13 plays, 80 yards- Missed 31-yard field goal attempt
· 0 plays- Fumbled Punt Return
It could not have gone much worse for the Cougar offense, and if Levine and Bush deserve credit for anything from the 2014 season it was not going back to O’Korn after that awful 1st quarter.
Not surprisingly, the Tigers took advantage of this offensive ineptitude and built an early 14-0 lead with a TD run from Paxton Lynch and a TD pass from Lynch to Tevin Jones.
The Cougars ‘Third Ward Defense’ (led by DC David Gibbs) deserves credit for getting the Tigers off the field without points in 3 of their first 5 drives while their offensive counterparts sputtered.
But Greg Ward Jr emphatically got the Cougars on the board with a 64-yard TD run where he made just about all 11 opposing defenders miss. This was one of the first times we saw Ward’s amazing improvisational ability, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
The Cougar defense came through again on the very next drive as Lee Hightower intercepted Lynch and with his return (and a penalty) the Coogs started their next drive deep in Memphis territory. Just 4 plays later, Kenneth Farrow scored from 2 yards out and in less than 3 minutes of game time the Coogs erased a 14-point deficit.
With 1:01 left in the 1st half, the Tigers would re-take the lead on a TD pass from Lynch to Daniel Montiel and go into halftime up 21-14. This would be the last time the Tigers got into the end zone.
In their 7 offensive possessions in the 2nd half the Tigers managed a grand total of 3 points.
The Cougar offense was still far from perfect, but they managed to string together 2 more scoring drives. Those drives ultimately decided this game.
On the first drive Ward went 4 for 5 through their air for 50 passing yards on that drive alone AND broke off a 32-yard run on the 3rd & long to keep the drive alive. Ryan Jackson scored on the ground from 3 yards out to tie the game at 21 with 4:36 left in the quarter.
The final TD drive of the game saw Ward complete 2 passes of 25 yards or longer, including a TD to Markeith Ambles that game the Coogs their first lead of the game: 28-21.
All Lynch and the Tigers could manage from this point on was a field goal. Memphis did get the ball back with 1:52 left in the game down by only 4, but Efrem Oliphant intercepted Lynch and the Coogs left Memphis with a hard-fought conference win.
Ward finished the game with 188 passing yards, completing just over 60% of his passes and with a team-high 95 rushing yards. The Cougar defense held the Tiger offense to 3.0 rush yards per carry and intercepted Lynch 3 times, Oliphant accounting for 2 of those INTs.
My favorite stat from this one is that Lynch threw 50% of his interceptions in the 2014 regular season in this one game. This was the game was the 27th straight where the Cougar defense forced at least one opponent turnover.
The immediate aftermath of this win was actually more positive for Memphis than it was for the Coogs. This loss dropped to the Tigers to a 3-3 record and they didn’t lose another game in 2014, including an infamous Miami Beach Bowl win over BYU to finish the year 10-3.
While the Coogs won 4 of their remaining 6 league games, the team suffered a humiliating homecoming loss to Tulane that sealed Levine and his staff’s fate at the end of the 2014 season.
In my opinion, the significance of this game was that it gave Ward a credibility among the fanbase and his teammates that none of his immediate predecessors had. Whatever you think about O’Korn and David Piland, Ward clearly had a dynamism that neither of those guys ever possessed.
If Ward never starts this game or Levine makes the decision to pull him after a rough 1st quarter, I can’t imagine how different the next couple years of Cougar football would’ve looked. No one player was more responsible for the staggering highs of Cougar football in the 2015-16 seasons (acknowledging that it wasn’t just Ward contributing over that period).
This road win over a very good Memphis team was the 1st chapter of a legendary career and why I included it in this countdown.