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October 15, 2013

American Notebook

The game of the season for the American Athletic Conference may be this Friday when UCF travels to Louisville.

Louisville has gotten most of the attention from the national media. The 6-0 Cardinals are a top 10 team, the favorites to win the conference and a dark-horse national title contender. But UCF is more battle-tested, having won at Penn State and lost a close game to South Carolina at home.

The Knights are battling for a chance at a BCS bowl in their first season playing in a conference where that's a possibility. The Cardinals are chasing something more -- an undefeated season and a berth among the elite teams in college football, and in need of a convincing wins against one of the few contenders.

"I think we are worthy of our ranking and I think we have a really good football team and I will continue to say that," coach Charlie Strong said. "Next week is going to be a really good test for us and we have to continue to play well and let the pieces fall where they may, but I think we have a really good football team."

Of course, those are only two of the American teams undefeated in conference play, but the other two members of that club won't have their place in the standings changed. Houston, still unbeaten at 5-0, moves out of conference to take on BYU. South Florida has the weekend off. After beating Connecticut on Saturday, the Bulls are 2-0 in the AAC, and 0-4 against everyone else.

On the other end of the spectrum, Temple and Connecticut will still be searching for their first wins. The Owls played well for a half before falling to Cincinnati, while the Huskies suffered a disappointing 13-10 loss to USF in the debut for both coach T.J. Weist and quarterback Tim Boyle.

"This loss is on me," Weist said. "It was my responsibility to do everything to win this game and we didn't. We had every opportunity. The defense played a great game; they didn't allow an offensive touchdown. They gave us every opportunity on field position and gave us a chance to play plays. It's disappointing that we didn't."

UCF (4-1, 1-0 AAC)

Game: UCF was off last week.

Notes: The Knights have another huge game Friday night against Louisville, and got good news on the injury front. Left tackle Torrian Wilson should be ready to play after missing the Memphis game with a knee injury.

Next: at Louisville, Oct. 18.


CINCINNATI (4-2, 1-1 AAC)

Game: Cincinnati 38, Temple 20. The Bearcats rebounded from a disappointing loss at South Florida by knocking off the winless Owls at home. Tion Green and Anthony McClung each scored twice for the Bearcats, which scored the last 17 points of the game to pull away.

Takeaway: In what began in a somber atmosphere at Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati earned a victory in the first home game since the Sept. 21 car accident that claimed the life of freshman offensive lineman Ben Flick and has teammate Mark Barr still in intensive care, the Bearcats earned a critical victory over the Owls.

"It was a great night for what these kids have been through in the last month," coach Tommy Tuberville said. "They needed something positive to happen to them. It's been a struggle mentally for all of us and even though they still have one of their teammates in intensive care, they're growing up. This is part of a learning process for all of us. I've never been through anything like this and hope to never go through it again."

Flick was honored with a moment of silence before the game, a video tribute and recognition of the family members.

"Honestly, the whole team had a tough time," quarterback Brendon Kay said. "It's not an excuse for what happened last week but, it's definitely had an effect on the team. I think we really did a good job on channeling it toward what we did tonight. We just got to keep rolling."

In an effort to jump-start the squad, the Bearcats instituted a faster-paced offense with a four-wideout set. That seemed to knock Temple off-balance early and got the team off to the quick start it needed.

"We intentionally changed our offense up with four wide receivers and went fast and got in a better high-team rhythm and it really helped us," Tuberville said. "I think it got our emotions going a little bit. We scored early and we haven't scored many points in the first quarter, so it was a good start."

Next: vs. Connecticut, Oct. 19.

UCONN (0-5, 0-1 AAC)

Game: South Florida 13, Connecticut 10. The Huskies failed to win T.J. Weist's coaching debut, falling at home to the Bulls. Though the UConn defense didn't allow a USF touchdown, the offense failed to turn its yards into points, and dropped passes torpedoed several key drives.

Takeaway: The Tim Boyle era didn't start off quite like the Huskies fans had hoped, and because of that T.J. Weist is still looking for his first win as a head coach.

Lyle McCombs and the running game did their part, at least in the first half. McCombs had 164 rushing yards, but South Florida stacked the box in the second half and dared Boyle to beat them through the air.

Boyle wound up going 15-43 for 149 yards. He didn't throw an interception, but he did fumble the football on a play that resulted in a 44-yard defensive touchdown for USF.

The freshman didn't get much help from his wide receivers, which had critical drops.

"Tim Boyle played exceptional game for a true freshman," Weist said. "He made a couple of throws early that could have been the difference in the game. If our guys make those catches, it's a different game. I'm proud of their effort and energy, but we have to make those plays to win this football game."

Next: at Cincinnati, Oct. 19

HOUSTON (5-0, 2-0 AAC)

Game: Houston 25, Memphis 15. The Cougars held the Tigers without a touchdown and overcame a slow start to remain undefeated. John O'Korn threw for 198 yards and a touchdown, while Kenneth Farrow ran for two scores.

Takeaway: The Cougars trailed the Tigers 15-10 at home before coming back to score the final 15 points of the game.

Memphis had 200 yards by halftime, but Houston cracked down after intermission. On its final five drives, the Tigers managed a total of just 72 yards.

"It's all about halftime adjustments, and being able to say 'here's what they're doing, here's what we're doing,'" coach Tony Levine said. "What comes to mind without having seen the film, they hit us with a couple of big plays up the middle in the first half, we saw what they were doing. They gameplanned all week for us like we did for them, came up with a couple of wrinkles and we made the adjustments at halftime and I felt like we shut that series of plays down in the second half."

Houston also forced four more turnovers, giving it 18 on the season. It leads the NCAA in turnover margin at plus-14.

Next: vs. BYU, Oct. 19.

LOUISVILLE (6-0, 2-0 AAC)

Game: Louisville 24, Rutgers 10. On a night when the Cardinals offense had trouble putting up points, the defense was strong down the stretch against the Scarlet Knights. Among the team's four interceptions were back-to-back picks in the fourth quarter that ended Rutgers' chances.

Takeaways: The offense's numbers were deceptively good. Teddy Bridgewater threw for more than 300 yards. Senorise Perry broke the century mark on the ground, and Damian Copeland through the air. Anytime a quarterback, running back and receiver hit those milestones in the same game, it usually means a points explosion.

But Bridgewater was missing his favorite red zone target, as DeVante Parker was on the sidelines with an injury, and the Cardinals fizzled once they got close to the end zone.

"Offensively we had many opportunities. When you look at us in the red zone, and I'll say this, we miss No. 9 [Parker]," coach Charlie Strong said. "We had some opportunities in the red zone and didn't score. We had a field goal blocked and we're going to get that straightened out."

Bridgewater acknowledged that his team left points on the field.

"No doubt. We left about 17 points on the field," Bridgewater said. "We should've easily put up more than 40 points tonight. That's how confident I am in our team but we just have to come back and get better."

Next: vs. UCF, Oct. 18

MEMPHIS (1-4, 0-2 AAC)

Game: Houston 25, Memphis 15. The Tigers led 15-10 in the second half, but four turnovers were too much to overcome. Jake Elliott tied a school record with five field goals.

Takeaway: Memphis had another strong defensive effort, with the Tigers holding their opponent under 300 yards of total offense for the fourth week in a row. But it wasn't enough to overcome four fumbles and a lack of success in the red zone from the offense.

"Obviously offensively you can't kick field goals every time you get the ball down there close," coach Justin Fuente said. "You can't turn the ball over. Defensively we can't make critical mistakes in the red zone, that pretty much sums it up."

Next: vs. SMU, Oct. 19.

RUTGERS (4-2, 1-1 AAC)

Game: Louisville 24, Rutgers 10. The Scarlet Knights put forth a strong defensive effort, but made too many mistakes of their own to pull off the upset. Quarterback Gary Nova had a particularly tough day, throwing four interceptions and getting sacked eight times.

Takeaway: Gary Nova had a night to forget against the Cardinals, throwing four interceptions and getting sacked eight times.

"All of them were on me. I can't think too clearly right now, but that's on me," Nova said. "I can't turn it over."

Coach Kyle Flood was a little more forgiving.

"It's hard to talk about Gary's play without talking about the protection," Flood said. "I think there's going to be, no question, some decisions Gary would like to have back again -- sometimes to maybe take the ball and take the sack. But, we certainly took enough of them just looking at it -- eight sacks in the game and he probably could have taken two or three others without putting the ball in jeopardy. The biggest issue we have right now is protecting him better."

Next: vs. Houston, Oct. 26

SMU (1-4, 0-1 AAC)

Game: SMU was off last week.

Notes: The big news over the bye week for SMU concerned adult beverages. Athletic director Rick Hart said the school was exploring the idea of allowing beer sales at both Ford Stadium and Moody Colisuem.

Next: at Memphis, Oct. 19



SOUTH FLORIDA (2-4, 2-0 AAC)

Game: South Florida 13, Temple 10. For the second week in a row, the Bulls won despite not scoring an offensive touchdown. An Aaron Lynch fumble return and a pair of Marvin Kloss proved enough to win on the road.

Takeaways: South Florida didn't have its starting quarterback or running back -- and beat Connecticut anyway.

Both quarterback Steven Bench and running back Marcus Shaw were on the sidelines against the Huskies, and the offense didn't manage to get the ball in the end zone. But it moved the ball enough to limit what Connecticut could do, and the fact that it did no harm while the defense and special teams were dominating proved to be enough for the Bulls to win.

"We finally got some first downs, we moved the ball a little better in the second half," coach Willie Taggart said. "We had some nice execution, nice pass protection and if Bobby [Eveld] gets some time, he can throw the football pretty well."

Next: vs. Louisville, Oct. 26

TEMPLE (0-6, 0-3 AAC)

Game: Cincinnati 38, Temple 20. The Owls remained winless, but went toe-to-toe with the Bearcats in a first-half shootout. After trailing 28-20 at halftime, however, the Owls went scoreless after intermission.

Takeaways: While the Owls still couldn't give coach Matt Rhule his first win with the Owls, freshman quarterback P.J. Walker looked comfortable under center in his first collegiate start.

Walker completed 12 of his 22 pass attempts for 220 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also threw an interception and lost a fumble, but all in all it was an encouraging performance.

"I think the future of P.J. looks really bright. He was as fast as anybody on the field," Rhule said. "He is going to be a heck of a player in this conference."

The Bearcats have one of the best defenses in the country, so Walker should find a bit smoother sailing this weekend against Army.

"I prepare every week like I am the starter because that is how it should be," Walker said "I just came out and I believed. I was relaxed, I was poised, and I just played the game and let the game come to me."

Next: vs. Army, Oct. 19.

NOTES, QUOTES

  • Cincinnati got a big game from running back Tion Green against Temple on Friday, and the coaching staff hopes that's a sign of things to come.

    Green may be the most talented of the Cincinnati running backs, but the sophomore hasn't quite put it together. Problems with pass protection and inconsistency dropped him to third on the depth chart, and injuries didn't help. He didn't carry the ball against either Illinois or Miami (Ohio) in part because of surgery following a nose hematoma that caused him to miss practice.

    But while junior Ralph David Abernathy IV remains the starter, he's undersized for the amount of work he's gotten in the first half of the season. With the coaches unhappy with Hosey Williams, the stage was set for Green to shine against the Owls.

    And Green took full advantage. He finished with a career-high 91 yards on 18 carries. He had a pair of rushing touchdowns and made other big plays on the ground as well, including his conversion on a fourth-and-two at the Temple 35 with the Bearcats nursing a 21-20 second-quarter lead.

    "It's a humbling feeling, especially with a good week of preparation, and getting the chance to earn my teammates' and coaches' trust," Green said.

    Green also feels like there's improvement to be made heading into next week's home clash with Connecticut.

    "I am my biggest critic," Green said. "If I could, I would go watch film right now and go over my correction because I'm the type of guy that wants to know what I've done wrong before coach can even evaluate me. I feel like I had a solid game, but there are a lot of places I could touch up on."

  • Who needs offense to win? Not South Florida.

    The Bulls won their second AAC game in a row last week, despite having yet to score an offensive touchdown in league play. An Aaron Lynch fumble return provided the only USF touchdown of the day, and combined with a pair of Marvin Kloss field goals proved enough points to earn a 13-10 win.

    "We said from day one that we would lean on our defense and we're doing it," coach Willie Taggart said. "What's great to see is that early in the year when we were turning the ball over for touchdowns, I told our defense, you know it's okay for us to do that too. They've been doing it on us, and the last three weeks we've been doing it. We practice that, scooping and scoring, and it's paying off for us."

    For a team that started 0-4, to be undefeated in the league standings is a testament to how well the defense has played while the banged-up offense still trues to find its footing.

    "We started 0-4 and so not a lot of people had trust in us and didn't think we'd be able to do it," Lynch said. "We had to step it up because being 0-4 won't get you anywhere, so we got that first win. When you get that first win, every other win will come because after a win, you work harder at practice because if you lose, you're down. But if you win, you're pumped up, and so we can practice like winners at practice."

    And for Taggart, there's still some work to do on the defensive side of the ball.

    "You know, they dropped some picks too," Taggart said. "They'll be working on that jug machine a lot this week."

  • For years, Houston has been a football team that has relief on its offense to score points and the defense to at least hold the opponent to an occasional field goal and give the guys on the other side of the ball a chance to catch their breath.

    But the Cougars defense looks much-improved in 2013, and carried the load against Memphis by forcing four turnovers and holding the Tigers to field goals in a 25-15 victory.

    "I just feel like we play more as a team this year," linebacker Efrem Oliphant said. "Everybody's mentality is just to 'do your job.' When we get another touchdown, we come back and we're just more focused on doing our jobs than the next person. All 11 of [us] are flying to the ball this year also, so that's picking up our game."

    That might come as a surprise to opponents used to a Houston defense that provides little resistance, but this squad has shown more resilience when backed up against the end zone.

    "Everyone expected them to score [touchdowns], I'm sure," Oliphant said. "They haven't really just focused on Houston as being a defensive team, and that should open eyes that we are playing defense here now. We're not trying to allow any points to help our offense out so that when they have the ball they can score, and we can just get the ball right back to them again."

    Coach Tony Levine credits an emphasis on forcing turnovers that began in the preseason and has extended to the weekly practices. His players concurred.

    "We put an emphasis on that on Tuesdays at practice," linebacker Derrick Matthews said. "Tuesday is the day we emphasize turnovers at practice and I think that's where that comes from."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "We could not have a better record, obviously, but at this point could we have played better? Absolutely. I heard a wise coach once say more games are lost than won. I am a believer in that." -- Houston coach Tony Levine, after his team knocked off Memphis 25-15.

    FIVE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM WEEK 5 IN THE AAC:

    1. Think UCF doesn't know what's on the line this week? Coach George O'Leary had his players watch last week's Louisville-Rutgers game live on ESPN Thursday night. The Knights, who moved from Conference USA to the AAC prior to this season, have a realistic chance at their first BCS bowl appearance if they can pull off the upset over the Cardinals.

    2. Louisville's DeVante Parker was a gametime decision on Thursday night, and the Cardinals medical staff decided he wasn't ready to go. The sooner Teddy Bridgewater's favorite red zone target is back, the better -- the red zone offense floundered without him.

    3. Opposing offenses had better be careful when playing Houston. The Cougars lead the nation with a plus-14 turnover margin and forced four fumbles in Saturday's victory over Memphis.

    4. Connecticut lost again on Saturday, but at least the running game showed a pulse. Entering as one of the worst teams in the nation on the ground, Lyle McCombs had 135 rushing yards in the first half alone and finished with 164 yards and a touchdown.

    5. An old weakness is cropping up again at Rutgers. The offensive line, which has been inconsistent in recent years, was missing in action against Louisville, allowing eight sacks and influencing quarterback Gary Nova's four interceptions.





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