It's probably a good thing that I took a short vacation from blogging over the past few weeks: I really wouldn't have wanted to write about Houston's losses to Mississippi State and Rice.
The 24-47 loss to Mississippi State I could handle. Sure, the Bulldogs' victory snapped a 17-game home winning streak, but let's face it: the Cougars were breaking in a brand-new true-freshman quarterback, David Piland, who had never before seen a college field, the difference in size and strength between SEC (i.e. BCS-AQ) linemen and C-USA (i.e. BCS non-AQ) lineman once again made itself apparent, and, quite frankly, the fact that it was an out-of-conference game meant that it really didn't effect the Coogs' ultimate goal of winning Conference USA. Besides, the Coogs managed to beat Mississippi State three out of four times during this series, which softens the blow of this loss somewhat.
Certainly, there wasn't much to like about the fact that the Cougar defense allowed the Bulldogs to amass a whopping 409 rushing yards. And I still don't understand why the coaching staff decided it was a good idea to have a guy making his very first college start throw 57 pass attempts while only attempting 11 rushes. Sure, the Bulldogs were probably expecting the Cougars to run, but you would at least think that the Coogs' best offensive weapon, Bryce Beall (who only had 17 rushing yards on the day), would be utilized a bit more than he was.
But if the loss to Mississippi State was disappointing, the Cougars' 31-34 loss to crosstown rival Rice at Rice Stadium the following Saturday was downright crushing
David Piland threw an interception close to Rice's goal line on the first series, leading to a quick Rice score, and the Cougars played very flat through the entire first half. Receivers dropped easy catches. The defense allowed the Owls to get first downs on 3rd and 13 and on 2nd and 18. The secondary got burned for touchdown passes of 29 and 59 yards. Rice's defensive line was blowing up Houston's offensive line. The Owls led 14-27 at the break.
The Cougars clawed their way back in the second half, playing better defense while moving the ball more effectively, and by midway through the fourth quarter managed to take a 31-27 lead. But the Coogs then gave up a 13-yard touchdown pass to Rice, and fumbled the ball on a bad snap on fourth down in the game's closing seconds to assure an Owl victory.
The subsequent meltdown on the various UH message boards was as nasty as it was predictable. A quarterback controversy emerged as fans aligned themselves in either the David Piland camp or the Terrance Broadway camp. Fans also voiced concern about playcalling - once again, the Cougars elected to throw deep passes in certain critical situations when running the ball would have made more sense - and people began to wonder if Houston's biggest loss on offense wasn't Case Keenum but rather departed offensive coordinator Dana Holgerson. Furthermore, given the poor performance of Houston's defense - linebacker Sammy Brown was a rare bright spot, recording 5 tackles for loss and two sacks - did it really matter who was behind center or what the playcalling was like? The Cougars were especially hurt by the absence of two key defensive linemen due to injuries - Matangi Tonga (out until November) and Radermon Scypion (out for the season).
What was distressing to me is that the "easy" half of the Cougars' schedule, with five out of six games in Houston, was over, with tough games against SMU, Central Florida, Tulsa and Southern Miss left to be played. I even wondered if the Cougars, given their problems, would manage another win this season.
Fortunately, the Cougars rose to the occasion last Saturday, notching a solid 45-20 victory against SMU in Dallas. The game, which was suspended in the first quarter for two and a half hours due to weather, was arguably Houston's best of the season. David Piland had a decent outing, completing 19 of 32 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown. Tryon Carrier returned a kickoff 91 yards for a score. The much-maligned Houston defense limited the Mustangs' high-flying run-and-shoot offense to just two touchdowns; SMU quarterback Kyle Padron was sacked twice and intercepted twice. But most important was the resurgence of the Cougar running attack: Michael Hayes had 86 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, while Bryce Beall chipped in for 85 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries.
Having so many on-field issues and coming off such a demoralizing loss to Rice, the Cougars could very easily had folded their tent on the road and in adverse weather conditions. Instead, they fought back. At 4-3 overall and 3-1 in conference, they remain in the driver's seat in Conference USA West.
Next up for the Coogs is a trip to the Liberty Bowl to play Memphis. The Tigers are not a very good team. But then again, neither was Rice. And back-to-back road games are never easy.