Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Liberty Bowl report

Lori, my brother and I departed Houston at about 5:15 am on the morning of Thursday December 28th. The nine-hour drive was uneventful; we arrived in Memphis about 3:15 that afternoon and checked in to our room at the Marriott downtown. After spending some time in the hotel working our way through my brother's bottle of Crown, we walked out to the trolley stop and made our way to Beale Street for the evening's festivities.

The Houston Alumni Association's Thursday night party at Pat O'Briens was rather disappointing. It was a very crowded affair and it took forever just to get inside the building. The lines for food were long and they, unbelievably, ran out of food before everybody got a chance to eat anything. And the two drink coupons everyone received were only good for domestic beer or for lousy wine (so bad that Lori couldn't even finish her glass!); we couldn't even use them to enjoy the hurricanes that make Pat O'Briens famous. We don't blame HAO for our disappointment - it's not their fault that Pat O'Briens sucks - but we clearly did not get our money's worth on the deal.

After a couple of hours at Pat O'Briens, we left and went to another Beale Street bar to drink beer, visit with fans of both teams, and watch Cal beat up on the Aggies. We later went to Pig on Beale to get a real meal of pork barbecue, since the meager amount of food we received at Pat O'Briens did nothing to satiate our hunger.

The following morning, we woke up, shook off our hangovers, and boarded buses to the Fairgrounds. The pre-game festivities at the Mid-South Coliseum were just as good as we remembered it from ten years ago: plenty of great food, an open bar and lots of people. Even the cheesy entertainment provided by a horde of prepubsecent singers and dancers was tolerable, although at one point I did get an urge to walk up to the stage and smack that irritating nine-year-old Elvis impersonator across the face.

We spent a couple of hours in the Coliseum, eating, drinking, and listening to the Spirit of Houston outplay South Carolina's band during the battle of the bands. I can honestly say that it wasn't much of contest: the UH band was louder, tighter and had a better repertoire than their musical counterparts from Columbia. It's been reported on a UH fan message board that South Carolina's band broke one of their drums in their effort to keep up with the intensity of the UH band: a hilarous story, if true.

After spending time enjoying ourselves at the pre-game party, we stumbled our way across the parking lot and took our seats among the UH faithful in the Liberty Bowl. I would estimate that somewhere around 8,000 UH fans - possibly more - were in the stadium and that Carolina fans probably enjoyed a 3:1 advantage in numbers. That's to be expected, considering that The Gamecocks draw and average of 80k fans/game while Houston did well to draw 20k this past season. All that aside, it was a very good turnout for the Cougar faithful. For all the hand-wringing and whining that has occurred regarding the number of tickets sold (first for the CUSA Championship game and then for the Liberty Bowl), Cougar fans clearly stepped up when it counted and represented themselves and this team well.

Going into the game, I felt that the Cougars would need to play a mistake-free game in order to win. That didn't happen. The two first-half turnovers were not insurmountable - the Cougars still led at halftime - but the botched snap in the third quarter that Kevin Kolb was forced to kick out of bounds was a game-breaker. It killed a good drive and a great scoring opportunity for the Coogs. South Carolina's defense took over, allowing Houston only eight points in the entire second half, and their offense gradually wore down the Cougar defense before blowing the game open in the fourth quarter.

Still, the Coogs had a chance to send the game into overtime after the defense came up with a crucial fourth-down stop late in the fourth quarter and put the offense back on the field with good field position. But the Gamecock defense stepped up, sacking Kolb for a huge loss and eventually forcing the Coogs to turn the ball over on downs. The 48th Liberty Bowl, exciting as it was, ended in disappointment for the Good Guys, as they fell short 44-36.

I'm not big on moral victories. Yes, it's true that the Cougars gained a lot of respect from the Gamecock faithful with their performance. It's also true that the Coogs managed to score more points on South Carolina than any other school (e.g. Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia and Auburn) has managed to do this season. On the other hand, it's equally true that South Carolina's 44 points were the most the Coogs have given up this season as well. And, in the end, the Cougars lost a game that they could have won, had just a few plays turned out differently. And that's a real bummer. Regardless of the opponent or the circumstances, it's never fun to lose a bowl game.

After all, the Coogs and their fans could have used a victory in the 2006 Liberty Bowl for a variety of reasons. A win would have broken UH's 26-year-long bowl victory drought. A win would have almost certainly catapulted UH to its first final 25 ranking since 1990. A win would have proven that the Cougars could beat a bowl team from the SEC and it would have forced a lot of people around the nation to eat large helpings of crow. But, most importantly, a victory in the Liberty Bowl would have constituted a fitting and happy ending to the on-campus careers of the team's seniors, especially Kevin Kolb.

Alas, happy endings only occur in fairy tales. And, as good as this season was for the Coogs - ten wins and a conference championship is nothing to be ashamed about - it wasn't exactly a fairy tale year for the Coogs. A fairy tale year probably would have included a Cougar victory over a struggling Miami team, rather than the heart-breaking 13-14 loss that actually occurred, and it most certainly would not have included the home loss to Louisiana-Lafayette. The 2006 season was a great step forward for Houston, but there is still a lot of unfinished business to attend to.

It's way too early to begin prognosticating about 2007; the Coogs lose a lot of talent on both sides of the ball and question marks abound going into the 2007 season. Will the Cougars be able to fill the holes on offense left by Kevin Kolb, Jackie Battle and Vincent Marshall? What about the personnel losses on defense? Will the coaching staff be able to cultivate something resembling a pass rush? Better tackling would help, too. The schedule will be a bit tougher, as well, with out-of-conference trips to Oregon and Alabama and crucial divisional matchups against Tulsa and UTEP on the road.

Given just how spectacularly bad Conference USA is right now, I don't think it is outside the realm of possibility that the Coogs could repeat as champions if a few holes are filled and a few adjustments are made. It's more likely, however, that 2007 will represent a step back and a period of rebuilding for the Houston program. But what if the Cougars were able to put together a decent season in spite of the talent being lost - say, seven wins and a postseason appearance in New Orleans or Mobile, perhaps? Would anybody consider that outcome unsuccessful?

I've seen some sentiment from some UH fans that it's more important for the program to go play the "big boys" from the Big XII or the SEC in the Fort Worth or Liberty Bowl, even if those games result in losses, than it is to play "nobody" teams from the MAC or Sunbelt even if they result in victories. I just can't agree with this logic: a bowl win - against any opponent in any bowl - will do more for the health of the program than yet another bowl loss. The folks on Sportscenter following the game, after all, were only too happy to report that the Cougars have lost seven straight bowls going back to 1980; it matters not to them, or to anybody outside the program, that many of these losses came against teams from "strong" conferences. At this point, the program - its ability to grow the fan base, its recruiting capabilities, and its national reputation - will be better served by the Coogs' breaking their bowl victory drought, even if it does come against "nobodies" like Middle Tennessee or Western Michigan.

Anyway, back to Memphis:

The South Carolina fans we met were, with only a few exceptions, classy and friendly both before the game as well as after. Many of them clearly took this game for granted the night before. And as many of them were clearly impressed and relieved the night after. The Gamecocks are good team with a lot of talent and a legend at the helm in the form of Steve Spurrier.

Saturday night after the game we walked up Main Street to Westy's and had an excellent meal. We then took the trolley back to Beale Street and treated ourselves to knock-you-on-your-ass strong daiquiris and good blues music at Wet Willie's. We departed Memphis at about 11:30 am Saturday. The weather was rainy and awful all the way past Little Rock. Once we got to Texarkana it was smooth sailing. The return trip was just as uneventful as the trip out, and we arrived home shortly after 9 pm.

We had a good time in Memphis, even if the outcome of the game wasn't to our liking. Hopefully we will be able to return soon. And hopefully the Cougars will win, for a change.

The Cougars' next game will be Saturday, September 1, 2007 against the Oregon Ducks in Eugene, Oregon.

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