AAC Notebook: UCF, Cincinnati continue to struggle

The Sports Xchange

September 27, 2015 at 7:02 pm.

Sep 26, 2015; Columbia, SC, USA; UCF Knights wide receiver Blake Tiralosi (12) makes a catch and is stopped by South Carolina Gamecocks safety T.J. Gurley (20) during the second half at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 26, 2015; Columbia, SC, USA; UCF Knights wide receiver Blake Tiralosi (12) makes a catch and is stopped by South Carolina Gamecocks safety T.J. Gurley (20) during the second half at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

A pair of preseason favorites are seeing their seasons slowly slip away, while a couple of other promising squads suffered setbacks in the American Athletic Conference this week.

Cincinnati and Central Florida have been perennial contenders in the brief history of the AAC, but 2015 doesn’t look like a promising campaign for either. UCF fell to 0-4 with a 31-14 loss to South Carolina, while Cincinnati now is 0-2 in the league after losing a 53-46 shootout at Memphis.

“I thought our kids improved today, but you have to play consistently for 60 minutes,” UCF coach George O’Leary said. “That is what the game is about — we did not do that. We caused our self-inflicted wounds, and that’s why you lose games.”

Connecticut and Southern Methodist, meanwhile, entered the week with a lot of optimism. Both were coming off tough losses against ranked teams; UConn at Missouri, SMU at TCU. But while last week’s defeats could be considered a moral victory by some, there was nothing positive to take away from this weekend’s losses — especially since both came at home.

UConn dropped its AAC opener 28-18 to Navy. The defense, which had looked so good over the first three games, had no answers for Navy quarterback Keenan Robinson until it was far too late.

“We had to start fast and we didn’t,” linebacker Junior Joseph said. “With that type of offense, you have to settle in fast, and if you don’t settle in fast you get in deep behind. When you’re behind dealing with that offense it’s hard to get back. It’s on the defense. Totally on the defense, starting with me. I have to play better.”

SMU’s defeat was even more disappointing. The Mustangs fell to FCS opponent James Madison 48-45, giving up the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.

“I knew all week long that this was a very talented James Madison football team,” coach Chad Morris said. “We knew coming in that they were very talented. They made the plays when they had to make them. Hats off to them. We didn’t help ourselves in a lot of areas. That was very disappointing on our part.”

East Carolina avoided a similar fate, ending a two-game losing streak with an impressive 35-28 victory over Virginia Tech. Houston also looked intimidating, improving to 3-0 with a 59-14 victory over Texas State.


Game: South Carolina 31, Central Florida 14. The Knights jumped out to an early lead, but couldn’t sustain their momentum in the second half in falling to the Gamecocks on the road. Freshman Bo Schneider threw for 189 yards and a touchdown, but also had two second-half interceptions.

Takeaway: While Central Florida led 14-8 at the half, the team couldn’t match South Carolina’s intensity after intermission. The Knights start conference play next week with an 0-4 record, the first time the team has started the season with a four-game losing streak since 2004.

Next: at Tulane, Oct. 3.

CINCINNATI (2-2, 0-2)

Game: Memphis 53, Cincinnati 46. Hayden Moore put up big numbers off the bench, but the redshirt freshman quarterback wasn’t quite enough to knock off the Tigers. His interception with 10 seconds to play ended the last chance at a tying score.

Takeaway: Gunner Kiel left early because of injury for the second game in a row, but the bigger worry may be the defense. It has now given up more than 1,000 yards to opposing offenses over the past two games.

Next: vs. Miami, Oct. 1.

CONNECTICUT (2-2, 0-1)

Game: Navy 28, Connecticut 18. The Huskies became the latest team to fall victim to Navy’s triple option attack in losing its AAC opener at home. Unlike when the Huskies knocked off Army earlier in the season, the Navy version of the offense proved too much for UConn, which kept giving up sustained drives and couldn’t get off the field on third downs.

Takeaway: It was a day of missed opportunities for Connecticut, which picked up yards on offense but fell short on several key plays that would have extended drives. The Huskies, once 2-0, now have a .500 record in advanced of a tough road trip to Brigham Young this weekend.

Next: at BYU, Oct. 2.

EAST CAROLINA (2-2, 0-1)

Game: East Carolina 35, Virginia Tech 28. James Summers came off the bench in relief of Blake Kemp to lead the Pirates to victory at home. The freshman ran for 169 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries, and also completed five of his 10 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown.

Takeaway: Saturday’s victory may have been a preview of what ECU opponents can expect the remainder of the season. With Kemp more of a dropback passer and Summers a threat to run, coach Ruffin McNeill can turn to either or both each particular week depending on matchups and the hot hand.

Next: at Southern Methodist, Oct. 3.

HOUSTON (3-0, 0-0)

Game: Houston 59, Texas State 14. Greg Ward Jr. led an explosive Houston offense to an easy victory at home. The Cougars scored 45 points in a row after Texas State tied the game at seven in the first quart

Takeaway: Texas State’s defense is terrible, but it still was an impressive performance by the Houston offense. The defense, meanwhile, forced four Bobcat turnovers and took an interception 35 yards to paydirt late in the second half.

Next: at Tulsa, Oct. 3.

MEMPHIS (4-0, 1-0)

Game: Memphis 53, Cincinnati 46. The Tigers had just enough offense to emerge on top in a shootout with Cincinnati at home. After Sam Craft’s three-yard touchdown run gave Memphis a seven-point lead with 53 seconds to go, Leonard Pegues picked off a Cincinnati pass to secure the win.

Takeaway: Memphis moved to 4-0 for the first time since 1961, and Paxton Lynch set a career high in passing yards for the third week in a row. With 87 points allowed over the past two games, however, the defense still has a lot of work to do if the Tigers hope to stay atop the conference standings.

Next: at South Florida, Oct. 2.

NAVY (3-0, 2-0)

Game: Navy 28, Connecticut 18. Keenan Reynolds rushed for 142 yards and three more touchdowns as the Midshipmen moved to 3-0 for the first time since the 2006 season. Navy scored on all three of its possessions in the first half.

Takeaway: The success Navy had running the football proves another indication that the rest of the American Athletic Conference may not be ready to defend it. The Huskies came into the day averaging just 126 yards on the ground allowed, a total Navy exceeded in the first half.

Next: vs. Air Force, Oct. 3.


Game: James Madison 48, Southern Methodist 45. The Mustangs allowed a James Madison touchdown pass with 17 seconds left as Southern Methodist fell on Homecoming weekend. Southern Methodist had come back from 10 points down to take the lead with 2:04 to play.

Takeaway: SMU gave up 729 yards to JMU, not a great sign for a team about to head into conference play. Chad Morris will face a test early in his coaching career to get his team to refocus in time for next week’s AAC opener.

Next: vs. East Carolina, Oct. 3.

SOUTH FLORIDA (1-2, 0-0)

Game: Bye Week.

Next: vs. Memphis, Oct. 2.

TEMPLE (3-0, 0-0)

Game: Bye Week.

Next: at Charlotte, Oct. 2.

TULANE (1-2, 0-0)

Game: Bye Week.

Next: at Central Florida, Oct. 3

TULSA (2-1, 0-0)
Game: Bye Week.
Next: at Houston, Oct. 3.


–Southern Methodist showed some surprising spark in nonconference play, beating North Texas and playing Texas Christian tough. But a 48-45 loss to James Madison leaves Chad Morris and his squad searching for answers on the eve of its conference opener this weekend.

A team that’s struggled as much as the Mustangs have in the recent past can’t afford to show up against anyone without energy and focus, but that’s exactly what happened on Saturday.

“I thought our energy on the sideline was atrocious. I really did,” Morris said. “You’re a 1-2 football team, but you’ve played some really good opponents and you were fixing to play another good opponent as we did tonight. We talked about it all week. We had to bring the energy. I was very disappointed.”

In particular, the defense has been atrocious. The Mustangs have given up more than 500 yards of total offense in each of its three losses, and surrendered 729 against James Madison.

“We just have glaring weaknesses right now and they show up every week,” coach Chad Morris said. “Obviously the quarterback run game is one of them. Stopping the pass is another.”

East Carolina provides a challenge on both counts. Blake Kemp has started the first four games and is more of a dropback passer, while James Summers came off the bench and ran all over Virginia Tech in last week’s victory over the Hokies.

“Our goals are still in front of us,” Morris said. “We just have to find a way to keep getting better.”

–Conference play agrees with Navy so far.

The Midshipmen moved to 2-0 in the American Athletic Conference — and 3-0 overall — with a 28-18 victory at Connecticut. It’s the first time since the 2006 season that Navy has won its first three games.

And quarterback Keenan Robinson continues to lead the way. The senior ran for three more touchdowns on Saturday, giving him 73 for his career. He’s tied with former Miami (Ohio) running back Travis Prentice for second in NCAA history, four in back of ex-Wisconsin tailback Monte Ball.

“His career is like our motto, one game at a time,” coach KenNiumatalolo said. “What he has done is remarkable but he just continues to move to the next game. And that has to be our team’s approach. We have only played three games — it’s not like we can pat ourselves on the back.”

The Huskies entered the game on a roll, with two wins and a 9-6 loss at Missouri on their resume. But the UConn defense couldn’t slow Robinson down, especially early in the contest.

“Anytime you are able to execute, it’s a big deal,” Robinson said. “Watching them on film, you can tell that’s a stout defense, great tacklers. They were able to shut down a high powered Missouri offense, so watching them on film we knew it would be a challenge. We had to claw for every yard, all 11 guys.”

They got enough of those yards to make another statement that they’re a good bet to contend all year long.

–Ruffin McNeill has said all year that James Summers is ready to contribute at quarterback. On Saturday, the AAC got a sneak preview of how he might be able to influence the conference race the rest of the way.

Summers came off the bench in place of Blake Kemp, and Virginia Tech had no answer for his running ability. The freshman ran for 169 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries. He also threw a touchdown pass and completed five of his 10 attempts.

“No. 1, he ran better than we tackled,” Hokies head coach Frank Beamer said afterwards. “He’s got ability. When you put him with the throwing guy [Kemp], it’s a tough thing to prepare for. We had him several times then missed a tackle. And like I said, he ran better than we tackled.”

Kemp himself went 9 for 12 for 118 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. He also scored on a three-yard run. The combination of a passing quarterback like Kemp and a running one like Summers suddenly makes the Pirates an intimidating team to defend.

“I thought both of them helped win the game,” ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. “I thought both of them, like their team, stayed dedicated to our mission, and our vision, and our team concept. I’m proud of both of them.”

QUOTE TO NOTE: “We still have some things we need to fix. This week, we need to prepare harder, because Tulsa had two weeks to prepare for us. We just have to come out ready on Monday to practice and the rest of the week.” — Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr., as his team prepares to open AAC play.



1. Navy’s Keenan Robinson had three more rushing touchdowns against Connecticut, giving him 73 for his career. That ties him for second on the NCAA list with Travis Prentice, four behind Monte Ball.

2. Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel left early with an injury for the second game in a row. This time, it was a neck injury that saw him carried off on a brace. X-rays proved negative, but his status for the Miami game this week is unclear.

3. Tulane athletic director Rick Dickson announced that he’ll retire at the end of the spring semester. He’s been in that position since 2000, so it’ll be interesting to see what effect a new AD has on the direction the football program takes going forward.

4. Houston’s strong start is drawing attention from sports stars in the city. James Harden and Ty Lawson of the Houston Rockets both were on the sidelines for Saturday’s rout of Texas State.

5. Paxton Lynch now has set new career highs in passing yards for three consecutive weeks. He threw for 412 in Thursday’s victory over Cincinnati.