Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cougars' bowl chances are rapidly diminishing

To say that the University of Houston has had a rough football season would be a monumental understatement. The loss of star quarterback Case Keenum (as well as his backup) against UCLA, coupled with the Cougars' porous defense, has resulted in bitter disappointment in what was originally supposed to be a promising year for the program. The team truly appeared dead in the water a few weeks ago when they lost to crosstown rival Rice (whose only other win to date has come against a program that just fired the worst coach in its history). But back-to-back victories on the road gave the Cougar faithful hope that the season could be salvaged: that a Conference USA West title and a trip to a bowl game were still possible.

After Houston's most recent two matches, however, that looks unlikely. The Cougars dropped back-to-back home games - a 33-40 loss to Central Florida on Friday November 5 and a 25-28 defeat at the hands of Tulsa on Saturday November 13 - and now go on a two-game roadtrip to end their season: this Saturday they will play Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg (where they've never won), and the Saturday after Thanksgiving they play revenge-minded Big XII foe Texas Tech in Lubbock. While anything can happen on any given Saturday, at this point I believe that the odds of the Cougars winning either of these games, thereby avoiding a losing season, are very slim.

The Coogs put up a good fight against one of Conference USA's better teams two Fridays ago. Houston started out slow, thanks to a David Piland interception that was run back for a UCF touchdown early in the game, and trailed 10-23 at the half. However, the Cougars scored 14 unanswered points to begin the second half and at one point even led the game. The Golden Knights regained a two-touchdown advantage in the fourth quarter, but after Houston scored again and UCF missed a field goal with 1:53 remaining the Cougars had a chance to tie the game. Unfortunately, it didn't happen.

In addition to completing 15 passes for 294 yards, UCF quarterback Jeffrey Godfrey was also the team's leading rusher as he scorched the woeful Houston run defense for 105 yards. And although the UH offense actually slightly outgained UCF, 532 yards to 522, costly miscues, such as ten UCF points resulting from two David Piland interceptions and a missed field goal and extra point by Matt Hogan, proved to be difference in the game.

Last Saturday the Tulsa Golden Hurricane came to Robertson Stadium for Houston's final home game of the year. And, once again, the Cougar defense was burned by a mobile quarterback, as G.J. Kinne gained 190 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown in addition to his 154 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air.

But the outcome of this game really cannot be blamed on the defense. Tulsa had no weapons outside of Kinne, and even then he was sacked three times and intercepted twice. The Cougar defense, furthermore, was actually able to hold Tulsa to 5 of 12 third down conversions and no fourth down conversions. The defense gave up an uncharacteristically-low 28 points (in spite of the fact that they were often put into tough positions by offensive turnovers) and played well enough for the Cougars to win.

The Cougars' problem was that David Piland was clearly had an off night. He threw five interceptions - four in the first half alone - and many of his other passes were thrown into coverage or behind receivers. It's simply hard to win when your quarterback throws the ball to the other team five times.

Although by the end of the half many people in the crowd were clamoring for Kevin Sumlin to put Terrance Broadway into the game, the coaching staff stuck with Piland. To his credit, Piland (who, in addition to those five picks, completed 22 of 36 passes for 291 yards and 3 touchdowns) played better in the second half. The Cougars outscored the Golden Hurricane 21-7 in the second half and were well on their way to taking the lead when Piland threw his last interception of the night with 5:39 left. Tulsa then ran out the clock to seal the win.

I don't know if the Cougars would have done any better if Broadway had taken over for Piland at any point in the game. But I also don't know if leaving a true freshman in a game when he's clearly having a bad night and allowing him to throw five interceptions is good for his confidence. And I really don't understand why the coaching staff didn't do more to emphasize the run on a night when the quarterback was struggling. Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes combined for 120 yards on 30 carries, but considering that Houston's best offensive weapon - Beall - only touched the ball four times the entire second half and had no carries at all the last 25 minutes of the game, one has to wonder what offensive coaches Jason Phillips and Kliff Klingsbury are doing (or if they really know what they're doing at all). Consider this: neither Beall nor Hayes saw the ball at all on Houston's last, interception-ended drive.

If you would have told me at the beginning of the month that the Cougars would score 40 points against Central Florida, I would have expected a win. If you would have told me at the beginning of the month that the Cougars would have held Tulsa to 28 points, I also would likewise have expected a win. But alas, that's not how this catastrophic season has gone.

This is the first time since the infamous 0-11 season of 2001 that the Cougars have lost four consecutive games in the City of Houston. More depressingly, with no home games remaining, football season is essentially over for me and my tailgating crew. While the Cougars still have two games remaining, and while they could certainly pull off a minor miracle and win one or even both of those games, I think the cold, hard reality is this:

The 2010 University of Houston football season essentially ended when Case Keenum injured his knee in the Rose Bowl last September. Given all of the Cougars' other weaknesses, both on the field as well as on the sidelines, there was simply no way they could afford to lose him and expect to have anything approaching a successful season.

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