No. 18 Houston was a significant underdog against No. 9 Florida State in the Peach Bowl. The advanced stats predicted a two-touchdown FSU blowout. But it turns out no one was ready for the 12-1 Cougars -- especially not the Seminoles.
Houston ran out to an early lead and then held off a strong Seminole comeback in a monumental 38-24 Peach Bowl victory. All-AAC quarterback Greg Ward Jr. carved up Florida State with his arm and legs, springing for 305 total yards and three touchdowns against a stout FSU defense. No team in the nation had scored more than 24 points against the Seminoles in 2015 until the Cougars rolled through them on New Year's Eve. The win was Houston's first bowl victory over a top-10 team since 1980.
Ward started the scoring with a seven-yard touchdown run. The Seminoles responded with a field goal and appeared to have swung the game's momentum in their favor with an interception on Houston's next drive, but the Cougar defense prevented standout tailback Dalvin Cook from igniting the FSU offense. Florida State went without a touchdown before halftime.
Tom Herman's innovative offense didn't have the same problem. Plays like this option pass from wide receiver Demarcus Ayers helped push Houston to a 21-3 lead at the break.
Florida State punched back with a 59-yard touchdown drive that made it 21-10 early in the third quarter, but a pair of Sean Maguire interceptions prevented them from taking advantage of a quiet stretch from the UH offense. Houston opened up the fourth quarter with a 39-yard field goal, but Maguire quickly recovered to sling a 65-yard touchdown pass to Travis Rudolph to give his team hope.
It wouldn't last. The two teams exchanged touchdowns before Ryan Jackson took a two-yard dive across the Seminole goal line to make it 38-24 with under two minutes to play, effectively sealing the upset win.
Florida State struggled to move the ball all afternoon against a Houston defense that seemed to be ready for anything the Seminoles could throw at them. FSU turned the ball over five times and All-American running back Cook gained only 33 yards on 18 carries in the loss.
Three things to know
1. Tom Herman is for real. Houston had a lot of victories this year, but none may have been bigger than retaining their rising star head coach despite the glut of high-profile coaching vacancies. Herman was linked to positions at South Carolina, Missouri, and Georgia before signing a new five-year contract with the Cougars for $2.8 million per year. Herman went 13-1 in his first year as Houston's head coach; no other coach in program history has won 13 games in a single season.
2. Florida State's quarterback situation went from bad to worse. The Seminoles were already without Everett Golson, who missed the Peach Bowl due to a death in his family. Then, they lost their other starting passer Sean Maguire early in the first half to a lower leg injury. That left the offense in the hands of J.J. Cosentino, who looked unpolished and ineffective in his first bowl appearance. Maguire came back with a heavily taped ankle before the half ended, and though he was slower he still found a way to drive FSU to their first touchdown of the game in the third quarter. However, his next two drives ended in interceptions and the Seminoles failed to capitalize on the opportunities that Houston granted them.
3. The AAC > the ACC, at least for bowl season. Teams from the American Athletic Conference went 0-5 in bowl matchups that didn't feature Atlantic Coast Conference foes. They went 2-1 in games against the ACC, including today's Peach Bowl win and a No. 21 Navy victory over Pittsburgh in the Military Bowl. Only Virginia Tech was able to come out ahead in the battle for the A_C supremacy when they beat Tulsa in the Independence Bowl.