Thursday, October 29, 2009

Houston defeats SMU 38-15, improves to 6-1

I realize it's been exactly one month since I last updated this blog. As I mentioned a couple of months ago, things are happening in both my personal as well as my professional life right now such that blogging is going to be light for awhile.

I'm still here, however, and I'm still following the University of Houston Cougars as they make their way through what so far has been an extremely exciting season.

It's probably a good thing that I was too busy to write an entry about Houston's soul-crushing 41-58 loss to Texas-El Paso back at the beginning of October. In one game, the team managed to undo everything that they had accomplished by beating Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. The Coogs dropped out of the top 25, their shot as a "BCS Buster" ended, and whatever slim chance quarterback Case Keenum had to win the Heisman Trophy vanished. The Cougars simply weren't mentally prepared for what was clearly a "trap" game, and UTEP, which is otherwise not a very good team, took full advantage of the opportunity. The Houston defense was particularly pathetic, allowing Miner RB Donald Buckram to amass an embarrassing 262 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Not even Case Keenum's 51 pass completions, 536 passing yards and five touchdown passes could make up for the rest of the team's poor performance. In one game, the Cougars went from being a potential top ten team to a team that was now not even in control of its own destiny to win its division.

Going in to a tough out-of-conference showdown against SEC opponent Mississippi State in Starkville, there was plenty of concern as to the effect of such a devastating loss on such a young team. Could they put the loss behind them and refocus? Or would the team take a nosedive? "The Coogs can still have a great season. They can win Conference USA and go to a bowl and be remembered as the team that continued to put UH football back on the national map," wrote Chronicle columnist Richard Justice shortly after the loss. "In the end, they'll be judged more on what they do after UTEP than what they did against UTEP."

If that's the case, then so far the Cougars deserved to be judged well. Since the UTEP debacle, they've rattled off three straight victories: a 31-24 defeat of Mississippi State (putting the Coogs at 4-0 for their nonconference schedule and 3-0 against teams from BCS conferences), a 44-16 beatdown of Tulane in the Superdome (the Cougars only led 9-6 at the half, but scored 20 unanswered points in the third quarter; I made the trip and had a great time at the game, on Bourbon Street and at Mother's), and, last weekend, a 38-15 homecoming victory over Southern Methodist.

Case Keenum did not put up his usual numbers gainst SMU; he "only" completed 25 of 36 passes for 233 yards and one touchdown, but in the end it didn't matter. The Cougar running game racked up 161 yards on the ground, and the defense recovered three SMU turnovers and held the Mustangs to o-for-10 on third-down conversions. SMU didn't even find the endzone until the fourth quarter, when they tried to mount a late rally, but a Charles Sims touchdown run with less than six minutes remaining sealed the win for the Cougars.

So now the Cougars find themselves bowl-eligible at 6-1 and are ranked 17th in the AP poll and 16th in the Coaches poll. There's still a lot of football left to be played, however, starting with a game against the always-tough-to-beat Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles at Robertson Stadium on Halloween. They then have back-to-back road games against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane and the Central Florida Golden Knights (we'll call this portion of the schedule the "Golden Trifecta...") before returning home to play Memphis and Rice to end the season. And the Coogs still need UTEP to lose at least one more game in order to reclaim the driver's seat in Conference USA's western division.

But one thing is for certain: so far, and even in spite of the ignoble loss to UTEP, the Cougars have exceeded everybody's expectations for the 2009 season. Here's to hoping that they can keep it up.

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