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Houston survives sloppiness, Cincinnati to keep playoff hopes alive

CINCINNATI -- Exhale, Houston. At least for now.

Houston’s dreams of crashing the College Football Playoff survived a test on the road and a Cincinnati team that wasn’t conceding a path into the mix for the national title.

The perfect season managed to remain intact despite the craziness that often rears its head on a Thursday night in college football, when fumbles float through the sky and the ball can inexplicably pop out of a star quarterback’s hand.

And despite some question about the health of his shoulder, Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. made it through a physical test with his knack for making big plays.

The No. 6 Cougars may not have looked like a national-title contender for stretches under the bright lights at Nippert Stadium, but after escaping with a 40-16 win over the Bearcats, they are still breathing. The question now is how long they can survive if they continue to live on the edge.

Houston was plagued by dumb penalties, particularly in the red zone. Ward tossed a couple of interceptions that didn’t appear to have anything to do with a sore shoulder. And while the defense is showing signs it can carry the team through some rough patches when Tom Herman’s offense isn’t clicking on all cylinders, it may be asking too much for that side of the ball to drag Houston to perfection.

Make no mistake: That’s the high bar the Cougars will have to clear if they’re going to earn a spot in the four-team playoff field. And given how much easier the schedule gets in the American Athletic Conference now that the visit to Cincinnati and the stunner over Oklahoma are in the books, it’s certainly within reason for the Cougars to roll into November without a loss even without playing their best. Their highest-ranked opponent, according to ESPN’s FPI, over the next seven games is Navy, at a modest No. 68.

Still, Houston flirted with disaster, and the Bearcats nearly provided it. And as Herman’s program found out a year ago against an underwhelming UConn team, a contender should take nothing for granted. Houston clearly looks more dangerous defensively, with touted defensive tackle Ed Oliver wreaking havoc up front and a secondary that put the victory away with timely interceptions and a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. But the offense needs some fine-tuning, and it also needs Ward to be completely healthy.

There’s a real test looming on Nov. 17 against Louisville, and the Cougars certainly couldn’t expect to win that huge showdown with the kind of sloppiness on display on Thursday. But it didn’t cost the Cougars any of their goals against the Bearcats.

At least for a moment, Houston can take a deep breath.