Trailing UCF 17-6 in the third quarter of the Cougars’ fifth game of the season, coach Tony Levine decided to bench starting quarterback John O’ Korn in favor of speedy second year Greg Ward Jr.
The sophomore finished the game with 116 yards passing and no turnovers.
The Cougars fell short in the comeback, but Ward has since led the team to two straight wins over Memphis and Temple.
Houston (4-3, 2-1) has utilized Ward’s skills in several facets of the game, playing him at wide receiver and punt returner as well as quarterback.
USF Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bresnahan said Ward’s unique speed presents a challenge the Bulls will have to face in Saturday’s game against the Cougars.
“(Levine) brings the added dimension of having a punt returner at quarterback,” Bresnahan said. “That adds a dimension in the scramble game, extending pass play with his feet, whether it’s to run the ball or throw the ball.”
USF (3-5, 2-2) has struggled against rushing attacks in the past four games, allowing an average of 243 rushing yards.
“We’ve been working on stopping the run and stopping the quarterback, because that’s where a lot of their explosive plays come from,” senior linebacker Reshard Cliett said.
The Bulls have been practicing swarming to the ball and gang tackling in practice because they are aware of Ward’s ability to make defenders miss with his feet.
“He’s an explosive guy,” Cliett said. “I haven’t seen a guy like this. We have to keep him contained on the outside.”
Bresnahan has stressed putting pressure on quarterbacks, but he said the defense will have to alter its strategy against Ward.
“He’s got big play ability so you’ve got to control him,” Bresnahan said. “You have to be intelligent and patient in your pass rush against him.”
But Bresnahan said the Bulls are less concerned with Ward than they are about rediscovering how to play with passion, which he said the team did not have against Cincinnati.
“I look at myself first in the mirror,” Bresnahan said. “Did we put them in position; did we make the calls to let them be aggressive? I think once we miss a run fit here or a run fit there, we kind of go back on our heels rather than attacking it and we have to help them do that. I’ll take full responsibility for that. We’ve got to let our guys build that fire up.”
But while the Bulls’ defense will be focused on containing the evasive Ward, the offense heads into Saturday’s game with uncertainty at the helm.
Following the Bulls’ loss to Cincinnati on Friday, coach Willie Taggart said sophomore quarterback Mike White was still the starter. But on Monday, Taggart told the media he had changed his mind and opened up competition for the position.
“It’s pretty tough right after a game to give a fair assessment that just went on in the game,” Offensive Coordinator Paul Wulff said. “I know media people want to get an answer, but sometimes you have to take some time to let it marinate, and watch film and get a feel for what goes on. Sometimes you have to alter what you thought.”
Wulff said White’s ball security problems stemmed from issues with concentration, and the offense has been focused on fixing this in practice.
Regardless of who Taggart names as starter, that quarterback will be without top receiver Andre Davis, who has been suspended for the first half of Saturday’s game because of a fight he was involved in against Cincinnati.
Sophomore receiver Rodney Adams said the other receivers will have to elevate their play to make up for Davis’ absence.
“We have to play to a higher level, so when Andre does get back, we’ll just stay on a roll,” Adams said. “We have to step up and stay focused.”
USF will host Houston at 4 p.m. in Raymond James Stadium. The game will be broadcast on EPSNews.