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October 29, 2013

American Notebook

The three best teams in the American Athletic Conference had statement victories on Saturday, overwhelming overmatched opponents. The big news was that prior to last weekend, it was a different team in one of those contests that would have considered itself among the elite.

A week after suffering its first loss of the season in a nonconference shootout against BYU, Houston went to New Jersey and overwhelmed Rutgers 49-14 to remain undefeated in conference play and stake its claim as a team with a legitimate shot to win the league in its inaugural season.

"We kind of heard a little all week of reasons why we should not have won this football game," Houston coach Tony Levine said. "I think it brought a little bit of fuel to the fire in terms of the heartbreaking loss we suffered last week, getting on a plane and flying three and a half hours, Rutgers coming off the bye week and it being Homecoming and it being a sellout. Our kids are young and they thrive on that."

Rutgers entered the week full of confidence, noting that Louisville's defeat the previous week against UCF meant the Scarlet Knights again controlled their own destiny. That's not true anymore, and the worries of another second-half fade have eclipsed the dreams of winning the AAC crown. Once again, it was the fundamentals that let Rutgers down.

"We talk about running the football and stopping the run. We were able to run the football today, but we were not able to stop the run. We gave up 211 yards rushing," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "Secure the football and take it away -- we weren't able to secure the football. Five interceptions and a fumble, we didn't get any back. It just makes it really hard to win football games when you have numbers like that."

Louisville doesn't control its own destiny either, but it recovered from last week's defeat to UCF with a 34-3 shellacking of South Florida. The Bulls came into the game 2-0 in league play, but the home crowd wasn't enough to get South Florida past a Cardinals squad ready to take out all its frustrations on them.

"You can't let one game beat us twice and we weren't going to let that game last week come and beat us again," Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. "It's a sign of maturity. We hate to talk about the past, but last year we lost to Syracuse and came right back and lost to UConn. We told ourselves that we didn't want to let what happened last year happen this year. The guys responded well and played great football."

As for UCF, the Knights didn't show any post-Louisville hangover, overwhelming Connecticut 62-17 and keeping the Huskies winless.

"I challenged the kids all week to stay hungry and get after the game," UCF coach George O'Leary said. "I challenged them to think of it as six championship games. Today was one, now you have five left. Each week you have to treat it like a championship game. Attack it, stay with your accountability and responsibility, regardless."

UCF (6-1, 3-0)

Game: UCF 62. Connecticut 17. The Knights celebrated their home debut in the AAC and their appearance in the Top 25 with a dominating 62-17 victory over Connecticut. UCF scored on their first nine possessions and led 45-10 at halftime.

Takeaways: UCF coach George O'Leary didn't want to take any chances on Saturday. Though Connecticut entered the game winless and the Knights were coming off an impressive upset of Louisville, O'Leary told his team not to ever let the Huskies think they were in the game.

Mission accomplished.

"I thought we needed to get out there and score early, just so you don't give them any breath of fresh air as far as what was taking place," O'Leary said. "We did what we needed to do on the first drive, we took it down and scored and were very efficient."

Quarterback Blake Bortles had a particularly impressive game. He completed 19 of his 23 passes in the first half, and finished 20-24 for 286 yards and four touchdowns. He also scored once on the ground.

"I think what he is doing well is that he knows the field," O'Leary said. "He is keeping the ball alive and as long as you do that, you will have a chance to make plays."

Next: vs. Houston, Nov. 9.

CINCINNATI (5-2, 2-1)

Game: Cincinnati was off last week.

Notes: The Bearcats got some good news on the medical front this week. Mark Barr, who suffered severe injuries in the Sept. auto accident that killed teammate Ben Flick, has been released from the hospital and transferred to a rehab facility. Neither the school nor the players have disclosed the nature of Barr's injuries.

Next: at Memphis, Oct. 30.

UConn (0-7, 0-3)

Game: UCF 62. Connecticut 17. It was another blowout loss for the Huskies on Saturday, as Connecticut trailed 45-10 at halftime and gave up points on the first nine Knights possessions. The 45-point margin of defeat ties for the largest ever since the Huskies joined the then-Division I-A in 2002.

Takeaways: The Huskies keep looking like they've hit rock bottom, only to find it can go even lower in subsequent weeks. But it'll be hard for T.J. Weist's squad to top the mediocrity in this one.

UCF gained 527 total yards, two more than Connecticut had allowed in the previous week's loss to Cincinnati and scored the first nine times they had the ball. Blake Bortles completed 20 of his 24 passes, and seemed to be able to take his pick of open receivers.

As a result, the Huskies enter their second bye week of the season with nothing but pride to play for. The team will miss a bowl game for the third year in a row, and if Connecticut loses its next game it'll match its worst start of the last 36 years.

Bad news: that next game's against a Louisville team that will enter ranked in the Top 25.

Next: vs. Louisville, Nov. 8

HOUSTON (6-1, 3-0)

Game: Houston 49, Rutgers 14. Houston made the most of its trip to the East Coast with a dominating performance against the Scarlet Knights. The game was tied at 14 in the second quarter before the Cougars scored the game's final five touchdowns.

Takeaways: Houston won this one the same way it's won most of its games this season -- take the ball away from its opponent and trust freshman quarterback John O'Korn to make plays without giving the ball back.

Against the Scarlet Knights, the defense did its part by forcing six turnovers. Five of those came on interceptions, two from strong safety Adrian McDonald.

"The number one correlation between winning football games and losing football games is turnovers," coach Tony Levine said. "That's what we talked about this week -- we are going to have to take care of the ball on offense and we have to create turnovers defensively. That's something we've done all season and when you do that and you win, you're not surprised.

O'Korn was once again outstanding in a road stadium that, at least when the game began, was loud and hostile. He was joined Saturday by fellow freshman Greg Ward, who got some extended playing time in the second half thanks to the lopsided score.

"I thought their play was outstanding," Levine said. "Those are two young men who I've talked about publically at length about their improvement not only on a weekly basis, but a daily basis. When I look down at the stats and see that John goes 24 of 30 for 364 yards and five touchdowns, that's a pretty impressive thing for a guy that just turned 18. Ward threw five passes and completed four of them and had 11 carries for 91 yards and a touchdown."

Next: vs. South Florida, Oct. 31.

LOUISVILLE (6-1, 3-1)

Game: Louisville 34, South Florida 3. The Cardinals rebounded from last week's loss to UCF by dominating the Bulls on both sides of the ball. Louisville's defense held South Florida to 133 total yards, while Teddy Bridgewater completed 25 of his 29 pass attempts for 344 yards and three touchdowns.

Takeaways: South Florida might have come into Saturday's game undefeated, but the Bulls didn't have the firepower to realistically compete with Louisville in terms of talent. The biggest thing Charlie Strong had to worry about was his own locker room.

A weakness of previous Louisville teams has been a failure to stay on an even keel. Early Strong squads sometimes had a hard time handling success, while the 2012 team followed its first loss of the season with another inexplicable defeat a week later.

So give this Cardinals unit credit for taking care of business, knocking off a South Florida squad that had somehow won its first two AAC games without scoring an offensive touchdown.

"It is all about your mental toughness and being able to bounce back and we were able to bounce back," Strong said. "It's always good to see your team come together. We knew what we needed to accomplish and we were able to accomplish it."

Though the Cardinals still need help to win the AAC, Louisville did all it could do by slipping past one of the teams ahead of it in the conference standings.

"We know that we let one slip away, but we still have five more opportunities to win and we took care of one today," quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said. "We'll continue to fight and take it one game at a time."

Next: at Connecticut, Nov. 8.

MEMPHIS (1-5, 0-3)

Game: Memphis was off last week.

Notes: For a team that depends on winning the field position battle, it's fitting that the Memphis punter is getting national recognition. Tom Hornsey made the initial list of candidates to win the Ray Guy Award, given to the top punter in college football. Of course, given that there are 84 other nominees, Hornsey probably doesn't need to start planning his speech just yet.

Next: vs. Cincinnati, Oct. 30

RUTGERS (4-3, 1-2)

Game: Houston 49, Rutgers 14. It was a brutal homecoming game for the Scarlet Knights, who turned the ball over six times in defeat. After Rutgers tied the game 14-14 in the second quarter, the visiting Cougars scored the game's final 35 points.

Takeaways: Has Gary Nova finally run out of rope at Rutgers?

Maybe not, but Kyle Flood yanked him in the second half of the 35-point loss to Houston, replacing him with Chas Dodd. Dodd didn't look any better, so Nova may keep his job. But the decision-making has to improve.

"Every year every player at every position has an opportunity to win the position. Once they win the position, they get a certain amount of trust that we give to them in terms of performing at that position," Flood said. "When they perform, they get to continue to do it. Today was a day I think where Gary sees the decisions that he made, he's going to want to make some different ones next time."

However, Flood said he'd wait and see before making a decision.

"I'd have to look at the film before I could make that judgment. I just thought that for today it was in his best interest to watch for a little bit and give Chas an opportunity to get out there and play."

Next: vs. Temple, Nov. 2.

SMU (3-4, 2-1)

Game: SMU 59, Temple 49. The Mustangs offense was able to overcome the Mustangs defense to win a wild shootout at home. Quarterback Garret Gilbert threw for 538 yards and four touchdowns, and also ran for 97 yards and a pair of scores.

Takeaways: SMU had a record-setting day against Temple on Saturday, and it needed every bit of those big numbers to come back and beat the Owls.

The Mustangs set school records for total offense (728 yards), total first downs (34) and passing first downs (24). Quarterback Garret Gilbert threw for a record 538 yards. The 21-point comeback tied for the second-biggest ever at the school.

"The last couple of games, Rutgers and this one, Garrett has played extremely well," coach June Jones said. "He has really come into his own. I told him as we were leaving the field that I couldn't be more proud of him. He's battled through so much stuff and has just outworked everybody."

Of course, to complete a 21-point comeback, you first have to fall behind by three touchdowns to a one-win Temple team at home. That wasn't a tremendous thrill, but at least on this day the Mustangs were able to overcome it.

"Obviously we'd love to not get down 28-7," Gilbert said, "but our team has a never say die attitude and we just continued to fight all afternoon long."

Next: at Cincinnati, Nov. 9

SOUTH FLORIDA (2-5, 2-1)

Game: Louisville 34, South Florida 3. The third time wasn't the charm for the Bulls, who failed to move to 3-0 in league play for the first time in program history. The Bulls were dominated on both sides of the ball in the 31-point defeat.

Takeaways: The Bulls had won their first two AAC games without the benefit of an offensive touchdown. That offensive ineptitude was not rewarded for the third game in a row, and South Florida never managed to get anything going at home.

South Florida managed just 133 total yards. It used three quarterbacks, as Steven Bench replaced Bobby Eveld because of an injury in the second quarter, and then gave way to freshman Mike White in the fourth.

The defense managed five sacks, but unfortunately that exceeded the amount of incompletions it forced from Teddy Bridgewater. The Louisville quarterback finished 25-29 and threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns.

Next: At Houston, Oct. 31

TEMPLE (1-7, 0-4)

Game: SMU 59, Temple 49. The Owls started strong, but had no answers for the Mustangs attack in a wild shootout in Dallas. Temple surrendered 728 total yards, 538 of which came through the air.

Takeaways: It was obviously not a banner day for the Temple defense. But if you want to be optimistic, the offense continues to show signs of progress under freshman quarterback P.J. Walker.

Walter started the day by completing his first 16 passes, and finished 26-37 for 293 yards and four touchdowns. Robby Anderson got a lot of the work, finishing with a school-record 239 yards receiving.

That was enough to get Temple a 28-7 lead and stun the crowd into silence. Unfortunately, that silence didn't last long, as the Mustangs scored on their next eight possessions to pull away.

Next: at Rutgers, Nov. 2.


--It's a good thing for Rutgers that the team has at least finished with opponents running the spread offense in the 2013 season. But the weaknesses in pass defense remain, which are crippling the team's chances at success this season.

Rutgers was torched in the season-opening loss to Fresno State. It got burned repeatedly in a narrow AAC victory over SMU. And its secondary was humiliated Saturday in the 49-14 loss to Houston.

Injuries are part of the problem. The Scarlet Knights started a pair of true freshmen against Houston with predictable results. But on the season, the Scarlet Knights entered the weekend as the fifth-worst defense against the pass in the country, and they're doing their best to get to the top spot.

"There is no pity or sympathy involved," coach Kyle Flood said of his team's injury situation. "There is no team in the country that's going to feel bad for us. Everybody's dealing with injury issues all over the country. We've got 85 players on scholarship, and when something happens to a player and he gets injured, the next man is up and we've got to get ready to play and compete."

It wasn't just the passing defense either. Rutgers gave up 211 yards against the run and constantly missed tackles. That might lead to some depth chart changes before the next game.

"Every week on defense we're going to put the best players out there. We've got to coach them as well as we can," Flood said. "The evaluation for us, has to be, okay, do we have the right pieces in the right place? If we have the best pieces in our football program in the best places for them, I do believe that when we execute, we'll play better defense than we did today."

Then again, that's pretty low bar.

--Saturday looked like a classic trap game for UCF. It came right after the team's upset of Louisville, and before a game against a suddenly-imposing Houston squad. It would be easy to look past a Connecticut team that's going nowhere, but has some talent and did manage to put a scare into Michigan earlier this season.

Not this time. UCF imposed its will on the Huskies early and often, scoring on its first nine possessions in a dominating 62-17 victory.

"I challenged them to think of it as six championship games. Today was one, now you have five left," coach George O'Leary said. "Each week you have to treat it like a championship game. Attack it, stay with your accountability and responsibility, regardless."

It continues a welcome pattern for the Knights offense, which hasn't had a problem putting up points. It's scored more than 20 points in each of its first seven games, just the second UCF program ever to do so.

A lot of that credit goes to junior quarterback Blake Bortles. He went 20-24 for 286 yards and four touchdowns. He also made plays with his feet, rushing for 26 yards and another score.

"He can run. There is no doubt he is a talented athlete," O'Leary said. "I was surprised he out-legged that linebacker down the sideline."

--It hasn't always been a fun season for Garret Gilbert, who spent the first month of the season putting up some gaudy yardage numbers without getting the ball into the end zone. But as the heart of AAC play continues, Gilbert and the Mustangs offense appears to be on top of its game.

"He's (QB Garrett Gilbert) played very well this year," coach June Jones said. "He had four picks against TCU which I thought was unfair, because three weren't his fault. Other than that he's played very well."

That's an understatement, or at least it was on Saturday. Gilbert threw for 538 yards and four touchdowns against Temple, and also had 97 yards on the ground. Had he picked up just three more yards with his legs, he'd have been the second player in NCAA history with 500 passing yards and 100 rushing yards.

The Mustangs struggled early, falling behind 28-7. But facing what would have been a critical blow to the team's bowl hopes, the offense found another gear and Temple couldn't keep up.

"I can't say enough about our guys just continuing to fight. No one got down on each other," Gilbert said. "Offensively we just kept plugging away."

Temple coach Matt Rhule could only shake his head.

"Gilbert's a tremendous quarterback," Rhule said. "We saw what he did in the end of the game against Rutgers and they scored the same amount of points. We really just couldn't hang in there."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "As we move forward, as I told the guys, we will be that team someday. We will get bigger, we'll get stronger and more explosive, and we'll get more athletes so we can match up for four quarters." -- Temple coach Matt Rhule, on his team's loss to SMU.


1. The Rutgers secondary was already thin, and now it's in even worse shape. Starting cornerback Nadir Barnwell has been suspended one game for a violation of team rules after being charged with DWI by Rutgers campus police.

2. Lost in all the SMU records set on Saturday was an outstanding day by Temple wideout Robby Anderson. Anderson set a Temple record with 239 yards on his nine catches, including two touchdown receptions.

3. UCF fans got another glimpse of freshman quarterback Justin Holman, who came in when the game got out of hand in the second half and went 6-11 for 65 yards and a touchdown. "The young kid [Justin Holman] -- obviously you can see the talent level he has," coach George O'Leary said. "He just needs more reps and with more reps he is going to be a very good player."

4. For the third season in a row, Connecticut won't be bowling. At least this time they spared their fans the agony of losing that opportunity in the final game of the season, which happened the previous two seasons.

5. Think Houston's not set at quarterback for the long haul? John O'Korn and Greg Ward combined for 400 yards and completed 28 of their 35 passes against Rutgers. Both are true freshmen.



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