South Florida’s ability to recover from slow starts will get a serious challenge from Houston on Saturday in a matchup of American Athletic Conference title contenders.
Kickoff at TDECU Stadium in Houston is 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC.
The No. 21 Bulls (7-0, 3-0 AAC) are one of three AAC East teams that have yet to lose a conference game and the unranked Cougars (6-1, 3-0) are the only West team without a loss in league play.
But it’s not like the Bulls have run over opponents on their way to a second straight 7-0 start. Last week, they trailed hapless Connecticut 7-0 after the first quarter, the fifth time this season they have been behind after 15 minutes. They surged to a 31-14 lead early in the fourth quarter and hung on for a 38-30 victory.
Earlier, they were down 24-10 after three quarters at Tulsa before rallying for a 25-24 victory, and they were tied with East Carolina 13-13 early in the fourth quarter of their 20-13 victory.
Coach Charlie Strong is hoping for a more consistent performance from the Bulls.
“You’d like to get started fast, you’d like a sense of urgency, but also you want to make sure that you’ve got to be consistent, and that’s what we haven’t been,” Strong said. “We play a really good half of defense and the next half is bad.
“We play a really bad half of offense and the next half is really good. So the consistency is what we’ve got to get. We’ve got to put it all together.”
Houston is somewhat of an enigma on defense.
Only one AAC team gives up more yardage per game than the Cougars, who surrender 489 yards per game. That would be UConn, which ranks last in the country in yielding more than 651 yards on average.
Yet the Cougars also have one of the country’s best defensive players in tackle Ed Oliver, who already has declared for the NFL draft, where he looks to be an early pick.
Strong is well aware of Oliver’s influence.
“I don’t know if you can neutralize him because he’s such a good football player,” Strong said. “But you have to know where he is aligned at all the time.”
Oliver, however, sustained a knee injury on a chop block late in last week’s win over Navy and Houston coach Major Applewhite listed Oliver’s availability this week as “questionable.”
“We’ll have to continue to monitor him day to day,” Applewhite said.
The good news for the Bulls is that it appears they have added another weapon to their arsenal with the emergence of freshman running back Johnny Ford. The 5-foot-5 scatback rushed for 164 yards on seven carries with three touchdowns in last week’s win, giving the Bulls two 100-yard rushers.
Junior Jordan Cronkrite rushed for 103 yards, the fifth consecutive game that the transfer from Florida has been above 100.
Strong described Cronkrite as a “complete back” who “can do so much” and noted Ford’s quickness. Ford had a 74-yard run in addition to scoring plays covering 15, 15, and 43 yards last week.
“When the seam opens for him,” Strong said, “he can hit the seam and he can get to the second level and make a guy miss.”
Applewhite called the two backs “exceptional.”
“They have a lot of skill, a lot of speed and power between the tackles,” he said. “When I look at them this year, the two backs are playing at a very high level.”
Quarterback D’Eriq King leads Houston’s offense, passing for 23 touchdowns with only three interceptions and rushing for nine scores. Strong likens him to former quarterback Quinton Flowers.
“This year, he’s so comfortable in the pocket now,” Strong said. “He can make the throws, and then he’s good enough where he can beat you with his feet.”