Ward Jr. propels Houston to big win over Huskies

Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr., top, leaps over Connecticut cornerback Jamar Summers to score a 10-yard touchdown in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016, in Houston. (Eric Christian Smith/AP Photo)

In their win over Houston last season, UConn only had to deal with quarterback Greg Ward Jr. for a handful of snaps due to injury as Kyle Postma got the start under center.

This year, a healthy Ward Jr. made all the difference for the Cougars (5-0, 2-0 the American) in a 42-14 win over the Huskies (2-3, 0-2 the American) at TDECU Stadium in Houston, Texas.

The senior quarterback wreaked havoc on the Huskies’ defense, accounting for five total touchdowns and throwing for 389 yards and three touchdowns on 32-38 passing while running for 65 yards and two scores on the ground. His performance marked the second game in his career in which he threw for at least two touchdowns and ran for at least two touchdowns and did so in just over three quarters after coming out with 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter.

The Huskies’ offense continued their consistently slow starts, failing to score in the first quarter and have still not recorded points in the first quarter of any game this season. However, UConn was able to keep Ward Jr. and Houston in check for the entire first quarter, holding the Cougars scoreless. The goose egg marked the first time the Huskies shut out an opponent in the first quarter this season.

But once the first quarter wound down, Ward Jr. went to work.

The Heisman Trophy candidate opened up scoring with a 30-yard run on a broken play just 40 seconds into the second quarter to go up 7-0. After Dillon Birden ran in the second score of the day from one yard out, Ward Jr. threw for two more touchdowns in the final six minutes of the second quarter to put the Cougars up 28-0.

After overthrowing Noel Thomas twice on open routes early in the first half, quarterback Bryant Shirreffs finally connected with the senior wide receiver for a big play in the final minute of the first half, hitting Thomas for a 62-yard touchdown.

Thomas finished the night with yet another solid performance with six catches for 135 yards, and also led the Huskies in rushing with 22 yards on three carries. The Norwalk, Connecticut native now has 46 catches and two touchdowns on the season.

Thomas’ performance was only bested by Houston’s Linell Bonner, who was the second wide receiver in the last two weeks to terrorize the UConn secondary. After Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo racked up 270 yards against the Huskies last week, Bonner turned in a career-best performance against the Huskies with a career-high 12 catches and 159 yards, including a one-handed catch to haul in Ward Jr.’s final touchdown of the night.

UConn was finally able to get on the board once again the fourth quarter after two catches by Hergy Mayala put the Huskies on the 1-yard line. One play later, Shirrefs ran the ball in to make it 42-14 Houston.

Mayala finished the night tied with Thomas for the team-high in receptions with six for a total of 91 yards. Shirreffs was 13-29 for 239 yards and one passing and rushing touchdown before being replaced with Garrett Anderson for UConn’s final drive.

Punter Justin Wain made history for the Huskies in the loss, breaking a 70-year old program record for most punting yards in a game. Wain punted for 493 yards on 12 attempts, shattering Robert Starkel’s 454-yard performance against Harvard in 1946.

Dan Madigan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering women's basketball. He can be reached via email at daniel.madigan@uconn.edu. He tweets @dmad1433.