The University of Houston Cougars ended the 2007 football season on a down note last Friday evening, losing 20-13 to longtime nemesis Texas Christian University in the Texas Bowl at Reliant Stadium. It was Houston's eighth bowl defeat in a row; the Coogs have not won a postseason game since the 1980 Garden State Bowl. Moreover, it was Houston's eighth loss in a row to TCU; the Coogs have not beaten the Horned Frogs since 1992, when both teams were members of the Southwest Conference.
Credit has to be given to TCU and coach Gary Patterson: they were determined to keep the Coogs' top offensive weapon, running back Anthony Alridge, from becoming a factor in the game and they did so, limiting "Quick Six" to 29 yards on 15 carries. In fact, TCU's defense simply shut down the Cougar running game, which netted a measly 32 yards. The Horned Frog defense also did a great job placing pressure on UH quarterback Case Keenum, whom himself showed a great ability to scramble and improvise under pressure as he completed 23 of 38 passes for 335 yards and a touchdown. The Coogs had a chance to tie the game in its waning seconds, but what should have been a touchdown pass to receiver Jeron Harvey missed by mere inches and TCU defensive lineman Chase Ortiz sealed the deal two plays later flew by hitting Case Keenum as time expired, sealing the win. The 13 points Houston managed to score were its lowest of the year. While TCU's offense didn't exactly put up stellar numbers themselves, they scored just enough points to win. Horned Frog QB Andy Dalton, who completed 21 of 30 passes for 249 yards, was named the bowl's MVP.
Of course, given the hardship the Cougars faced going into this bowl, it's remarkable that the game was as competitive as it was. The decision by former head coach Art Briles to bail out on his team prior to their bowl game - and to take two of his offensive assistants to the coaching graveyard that is Baylor with him - put the program in a very difficult position going into the Texas Bowl. Interim head coach Chris Thurmond and the remaining assistants did the best they could under the circumstances, and to the team's credit they stayed focused and played a decent TCU team tough. Unfortunately, it just wasn't good enough, and the Coogs' bowl losing streak continues.
The Coogs end the 2007 season with an 8-5 record, which is one win better than I predicted in my pre-season outlook. It was a season of ups and downs, featuring exciting nail-biters such as a 56-48 victory over crosstown rival Rice and a 34-31 win over UTEP in El Paso, as well as disappointing losses such as a 35-37 home defeat to East Carolina (wherein the Coogs missed not one but two field goals at the end of the game that would have secured the victory) or a 7-56 road shellacking at the hands of Tulsa. The Coogs also came within one play of potentially defeating Alabama in Tuscaloosa, but fell short 24-30. Although the Coogs end 2007 with their first back-to-back winning seasons since 1989-90, the team proved itself to be little better than mediocre; every team they beat ended the season with a losing record, and every team they lost to ended the season with a winning record.
Going into the season, most savvy UH fans (myself included) expressed the most concern about the quarterback position, the offensive line and the secondary. These concerns were accurate, but not to the degree feared at season's beginning. The quarterback situation proved to be unsettled for the entire season, with Case Keenum and Blake Joseph trading time behind center. The offensive line was far from stellar, allowing a cringe-inducing 34 sacks over the course of the season. To be fair, some of these sacks were caused by young quarterback uncertainty - both Keenum and Joseph showed a tendency to hold on to the ball too long - but the O-line's domination at the hands of TCU's defensive line last Friday proved just how relatively weak it was. In spite of these weaknesses, however, the Cougars still managed one of the nation's most productive offenses, amassing almost 502 yards per game and scoring 34.5 points per game.
The secondary wasn't quite as bad as feared going into the season, although the UH faithful obviously would have liked to have seen fewer touchdown passes (the Coogs allowed 28) and more interceptions (UH picked off 14). The CBs and safeties were helped by the fact that Rocky Schwartz, although technically a linebacker, spent most of his time in the backfield and led the team in tackles with 103.
Then there was the Unholy Trinity of turnovers, penalties and poor special teams play that plagued the UH football team for yet another season. The Cougars end the year as one of the nation's most penalty-prone programs, committing 101 flags over the course of the fall. They were also one of the nation's most turnover-prone teams in 2007, losing the ball a total of 30 times. And don't get me started on special teams; not only did the kicking game cost the Coogs at least one victory this season (ECU), but their net punting average of 31.2 yards and their punt return defense of 14.6 yards are both among the nation's worst. After five years under Art Briles, it became clear that these problems were simply not going to go away.
But none it matters now. The season - Houston's fourth winning season in five years - is over, Art Briles is gone, and the Cougars and their fans now look forward to new coach Kevin Sumlin (currently an assistant with the Oklahoma Sooners) and the 2008 season.
What can we expect from the Coogs in 2008? It's simply too early to tell. We know that the Coogs lose key seniors such as Anthony Alridge, Donnie Avery, Jeron Harvey and Dustin Dickinson on offense and Tate Stewart, Brandon Pahulu and Rocky Schwartz on defense. We know that the gap between the departure of Art Briles and the arrival of Kevin Sumlin (as well as the fact that Briles is busy redirecting what were his Houston recruits to Baylor) means that Houston's 2008 recruiting class is probably going to be pretty sparse in terms of talent. And we know that, when a school taps an assistant head coach with no personal track record of winning or losing to be their next head coach, there's always a risk involved. Sumlin is, to be sure, an unproven commodity.
But I'm not going to write off the 2008 season just yet. The schedule, which sees the Coogs play division rivals Tulsa and UTEP at home and whose toughest games are road dates against Oklahoma State in Stillwater and East Carolina in Greenville, is not unfavorable. There is plenty of returning talent on this team: Case Keenum, for all his faults, showed flashes of brilliance over the fall and has the potential to be a pretty good quarterback; Terrence Ganaway and Andre Kohn show promise at running back, as do Teric Williams and Chris Gilbert at wide receiver; Mark Hafner is a solid tight end that will hopefully see more utilization in Sumlin's offense; defensive end Phillip Hunt (10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss), cornerback Kenneth Fontenette (65 tackles and 4 interceptions), linebacker Cody Lubojasky and safety Ernest Miller return to a defense that, while still weak, has steadily improved over the last few seasons. Kevin Sumlin has an impressive resume, and he has worked under proven winner Bob Stoops for the last five years. There's definitely reason for optimism.
In spite of his faults as a coach (lack of attention to defense or special teams, poor team discipline, etc.) or the rather classless way in which he quit in his team prior to their bowl appearance, Art Briles deserves credit for returning a winning spirit to a University of Houston football program that for so many years had only known defeat. But the 2007 season, with its slightly-better-than-average result, indicated that he had taken the program as far as he could. Now it's time to see if Kevin Sumlin can take Cougar football to the next step: bowl victories and top 25 appearances. The UH faithful will find out, beginning on August 30, 2008.