Two weeks shy of a year ago, the University of Houston suffered a devastating defeat to UCLA at the Rose Bowl. Not only did the Cougars' BCS-busting aspirations come to an end with a 13-31 loss at the hands of the Bruins, but the Cougars also lost both starting quarterback Case Keenum and backup quarterback Cotton Turner to season-ending injuries. The rest of the season was a disaster, as true freshmen were thrust into the quarterback role, and the Cougars limped out of the season with a disappointing 5-7 record.
Last Saturday afternoon at Robertson Stadium, it was time for some payback. And payback the Cougars got, with a satisfying 38-34 victory over those same UCLA Bruins.
It wasn't easy. The Cougars jumped out to a 10-0 lead after the first quarter and led 31-14 at the half. But the Bruins responded in the second half with two unanswered touchdowns. The Coogs came up with another touchdown in the fourth quarter, but UCLA found the endzone late in the fourth and, trailing by only four points and with the Houston defense reeling, lined up for an onside kick that would have given them a good chance to win the game had they recovered. However, the Cougar special teams did their job by smothering the onside kick, and the Coogs held on for the 38-34 victory.
The Cougar defense might feature a new look with eight new starters, but on Saturday it was its usual dreadful self, giving up 554 yards of total offense to the Bruins. The run defense continued to struggle, surrendering 128 yards to UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin and 87 yards to quarterback Richard Brehaut (who replaced starting quarterback Kevin Prince after he was injured). Furthermore, the Cougars had no answer for UCLA tight end Joseph Fauria, who used his height advantage (he is 6'8") to pull down six receptions for 110 yards.
Fortunately, UCLA's defense wasn't any better when it came to stopping Houston's offense. Case Keenum returned from his injury in fine form, completing 30 of 40 passes for 310 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Running backs Bryce Beall (69 yards and one touchdown for eleven carries) and Michael Hayes (42 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries) accounted for the majority of the Coogs' 159 yards gained on the ground. Tyron Carrier led UH's receiving crops with 10 catches for 138 yards and a touchdown. He fumbled what would have been his second touchdown into the endzone, but luckily UH offensive lineman Chris Thompson was able to fall onto the loose ball in the endzone for a crucial Cougar score. Houston also benefited from a UCLA missed field goal and extra point that proved to be the difference in the score.
The nail-biting nature of the game aside, this was a huge win for the Cougars. They start out their season with an all-important confidence-building victory over their highest-profile opponent (and only opponent from a BCS-AQ conference) on this year's schedule, and they gain a measure of revenge in doing so.
31,144 were in attendance, which wasn't quite the sellout that the UH athletics department was hoping for but was nevertheless a good showing, especially considering the brutal weather conditions that had been predicted. Fortunately, the unbearable heat and humidity never materialized, but I continue to believe that not playing home games in September at night is a mistake.