Somewhat overlooked at the start of the college football season, it's time to start paying attention to Houston.
The Cougars (6-1, 3-0 American Athletic Conference) are loaded. They have an outstanding true freshman quarterback to run a high-octane offense, two good wide receivers and a defense that is tops in the nation in taking the ball away from opponents.
It was all on display on Saturday as John O'Korn threw for career bests of 364 yards and five touchdowns and Houston forced a season-high six turnovers in routing error-prone Rutgers 49-14.
"We always play with a chip on our shoulders," said sophomore receiver Deontay Greenberry, who caught eight passes for 168 yards and three touchdowns, with the yardage and TDs being personal bests. "We always feel like we have something to prove going into every game. That's what gives us the extra urge to give it more every play."
In handing Rutgers (4-3, 1-2) its worst loss since a 56-5 setback to Louisville in 2005, Houston became bowl eligible with five games left in the season. There is a lot more at stake. The Cougars have a shot at the conference's BCS berth if they can run the table with a schedule that includes games with No. 21 Central Florida, who they are tied with for first place, and No. 18 Louisville.
"I was watching the Louisville (Central Florida) game and the ESPN commentators were talking about they were going to run the conference and do this and do that," said Houston safety Adrian McDonald, who had two of the Cougars' five interceptions. "They didn't even say anything about us. Coach talked about it. This is motivation. We're coming from the bottom and we're just going to work out way up."
O'Korn came into the game leading all true freshmen with 14 touchdown passes and he added to the total, hitting 24 of 30 attempts to help Houston rebound from its first loss of the season. His scoring passes covered 10, 83 and 5 yards to Greenberry, 26 to DeMarcus Ayers and 2 yards to Aaron Johnson. Kenneth Farrow also scored on a 40-yard run and backup quarterback Greg Ward Jr. added a 2-yard TD run for the Cougars, who gained 611 yards in total offense.
"He is nothing like a freshman," Greenberry said of O'Korn, who also found Daniel Spencer six times for 117 yards. "Whenever someone messes up, it could be a senior, he's saying: `Come on, let's go, let's get it going.' He doesn't even feel he is a freshman. He has really stepped up for us."
Justin Goodwin ran for 161 yards and touchdowns of 5 and 14 yards for Rutgers, which was playing its first game in 16 days.
"We didn't play well," said Rutgers safety Tejay Johnson. "We gave up 211 yards rushing. I missed tackles. The frustration is through the roof. A loss is a loss, but nobody likes to get blown out, especially when you don't execute. We just did not execute."
It was bad on both sides of the ball.
"We certainly did not have one of our better days," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "I have to compliment the University of Houston and Tony Levine's team. I thought they had an excellent team coming in and certainly they proved that. "
Houston came into the game leading the nation in takeaways (21) and turnover margin (14) and they only added to those numbers, intercepting Gary Nova three times.
O'Korn, who has not been made available to the media, and the Cougars defense helped break the game open midway through the second quarter with two touchdowns in 52 seconds that turned a 14-all tie into a 28-14 halftime lead.
On the first play from scrimmage after Goodwin tied the game with 14-yard run, O'Korn hit Greenberry on a slant that turned into an 83-yard catch-and-run to daylight.
Safety Trevon Stewart forced and recovered a fumble at the 23 by fullback Michael Burton on Rutgers' second play from scrimmage on the next series. After an incompletion, O'Korn found Ayers on a streak pattern down the left sideline for a 14-point lead.
Rutgers' best chance to get back in the game came on the opening series of the second half. With Goodwin carrying the ball almost every down, Rutgers reached the Houston 22 after Nova hit tight end Tyler Kroft on a 31-yard pass play. After a time out, the Scarlet Knights got cute. They called a halfback option by backup Savon Huggins. He circled to his right and threw the ball right to McDonald.
O'Korn then came on the field and led an 11-play, 84-yard scoring drive that ended with his toss to a wide-open Johnson for a touchdown.
Nova finished 7 of 15 for 138 yards before being relieved by Chas Dodd in the third quarter. Nova has thrown seven interceptions in the last two games, both losses.
Goodwin also scored on a 5-yard run early to give Rutgers its only lead 7-0.
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