HOUSTON — For a brief moment, most of the 40,873 fans in attendance at TDECU Stadium on Thursday night held their collective breath while the star quarterback lay on the ground trying to catch his.
Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. had just taken a monster hit from Connecticut linebacker Junior Joseph, who has at least two inches and 60 pounds on the Heisman hopeful. The Cougars have a capable backup in Kyle Postma but the College Football Playoff hopes of the nation’s No. 6 team sit squarely on the shoulders of the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Ward.
It was much ado about nothing, as Ward returned after missing only one play to lead the Cougars’ second touchdown drive of a routine night for the Cougars, a 42-14 rout of UConn, the only team to defeat Houston in 2015.
The sequence was also a microcosm of how fragile Houston’s playoff hopes are.
As a Group of 5 team, the deck is already stacked against Houston, because its strength of schedule is unlikely to match that of the conference champions out of the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC. The team’s only hope to be one of the final four teams is to go unbeaten, something the Cougars (5-0) moved a step closer toward Thursday.
And those hopes are only as good as Ward’s health, a tightrope that coach Tom Herman and his staff have to hope that the diminutive quarterback can successfully walk, given how frequently he carries the football and how confident he is to stay in the pocket and take hits while delivering the ball downfield.
Ward had the kind of night you’d expect for someone in the Heisman Trophy conversation to have against an inferior team like the Huskies (2-3): 32-for-38 passing, a career-high 389 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He ran for 65 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries, and dazzled the crowd by zigging when UConn’s defenders zagged, showing off his quickness and agility. And of Ward’s six incomplete passes, two of those were drops.
After securing his FBS-best 18th consecutive win as a starter, there’s no question Ward is one of the nation’s best players.
He even showed a side of himself rarely seen for the understated star, going face mask-to-face mask with Joseph following a touchdown pass later in the second quarter after Joseph again put him on the ground. As the pair lay on the ground through the play’s conclusion, Ward pushed Joseph’s legs off of him and the much-larger Joseph got in Ward’s face, but Ward had no intention of backing down (Joseph eventually was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on the play).
Ward has shown that he’s as tough as they come, but his health is something that the Cougars will keep a close eye on. He suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder in Houston’s season-opening win over Oklahoma, an injury that he’s still battling. Herman said in recent weeks that doctors said it can’t get worse even if Ward continues to play, but it’s probably as good as it’s going to get. It certainly didn’t seem to effect his throws Thursday night.
Last season, when the Huskies delivered Houston its only loss, Ward missed all but five fourth-quarter plays because of an ankle injury suffered the previous week against Memphis. Since the start of the 2015 season, no quarterback in the FBS has carried the ball more than Ward (261) and those runs come with a risk.
If he can survive those risks, Houston’s playoff chances increase, pending a Nov. 17 home showdown with Lamar Jackson and No. 3 Louisville.