Monday, September 03, 2007

Houston 27, Oregon 48

The game was closer than the score indicates; the Coogs were only down by three at the half and both teams were actually tied at 20 until late in the third quarter. However, a promising UH drive ended when Case Keenum's woulda-been-a-touchdown pass was picked off in the endzone. Oregon marched down the field in the other direction to score, and that cemented the game's momentum in favor of the Ducks. Oregon would later block a UH punt to set up another quick score, and Duck quarterback Dennis Dixon would scamper 80 yards for another touchdown to seal the game for the home team.

Interestingly, Houston ended the game with more total yards (545 to 473), more first downs (30 to 22), and more time of possession (32:50 to 27:10) than Oregon. But they also turned the ball over four times (two interceptions and two fumbles) and had that punt blocked. The Ducks, on the other hand, suffered no turnovers of their own. And that, quite simply, is why the Cougars lost and the Ducks won.

The Coogs were, once again, their own worst enemy on Saturday. The "Unholy Trinity" of turnovers, poor special teams play and penalties (11 total flags, including a defensive pass interference call away from the ball which negated what would have been an interception returned for a touchdown) along with, to a lesser extent, the "Schismatic Quartet" of dropped/overthrown passes, poor tackling, a lack of a pass rush and questionable play-calling inside the red zone, ensured a Houston defeat. Had those miscues not happened, the outcome of the game would have been much different.

It's very frustrating, especially considering how well the Coogs played in the hostile confines of Autzen Field when they did not make mistakes. Anthony Alridge was a beast, rushing for 205 yards and a touchdown and receiving for 88 yards and a touchdown. The Ducks simply had no answer for his speed. Although Blake Joseph started the game and had a better passing percentage, Case Keenum seemed to move the offense better, exhibited better mobility and threw the team's only touchdown pass. The offensive line played well, allowing only one sack on the afternoon. The defense held dangerous Duck running back Jonathan Stewart in check (67 yards total). T. J. Lawrence was reliable on kick-offs and field goals.

But with the good came the bad. Aside from the Unholy Trinity and the Schismatic Quartet, there were some bad or bobbled snaps, indicating that the center is still a position of concern for the Cougars. Mobile quarterbacks still give the UH defense problems, as was evidenced by Dixon's 141 rushing yards. The linebackers and the defensive backs looked lost at times, and, for all the buzz he generated during August practices, new punter Chase Turner's performance was disappointing. All in all, while the Cougars' performance revealed some positives, there nevertheless remain a lot of weak spots on this football team.

With all that said, there is room for optimism. First off, with the exception of the Alabama game the Cougars will not be facing any more teams with Oregon's level of athletic talent this season. This is not to say that the Coogs have a cakewalk schedule outside of Oregon and 'Bama - given their performances this weekend, East Carolina and Colorado State look like they're going to be tough - but the overall speed, athleticism and size recruited by Pac-10 teams, needless to say, simply doesn't exist in C-USA. Secondly, this game proved the simple fact that the Coogs are clearly loaded in terms of raw talent, especially on offense. If Anthony Alridge tore apart Oregon's defense, think what he could do to Tulane or Rice (which just started their season by losing to I-AA Nichols State at home) or UAB? Finally, the mental lapses that cost the Cougars their chance to upset Oregon - the lousy tackling, the dropped passes, the penalties, the special teams flubs, and most importantly the turnovers - are all problems that are correctable with the right coaching. It doesn't hurt that the Coogs have a bye week before they play their next opponent, and that gives Art Briles and his staff two whole weeks to work on ball-handling and tackling technique, to continue to evaluate and address the performance of the two quarterbacks (and it was a given that both Keenum and Joseph, given their inexperience, would make mistakes in this game), and to generally fix the problems that appeared during the Oregon game.

But therein lies the rub: will the mental miscues and other mistakes that marred last Saturday's performance ever really be corrected? The "Unholy Trinity," like it or not, seems to plague the Briles-coached UH football program year in and year out. Lousy tackling has become a hallmark of the Cougar defense over the past few years, as has the lack of an effective pass rush. A lot of Saturday's mistakes are things the UH faithful have seen all too often before. Will 2007 be different, or was the Oregon game just an indication that we'll see more of the same?

All in all, I think last Saturday's showing by Houston was respectable, and, as I noted in a previous post, I think that foretells of a decent season - a winning record and a third-straight bowl appearance - for the Cougars. But, at some point, the problems that have plagued UH football for too long - namely, the turnovers, the penalties, and the special teams miscues - need to be addressed. If they're not, the Cougars will never climb to the next level of the college football world.

Which is unfortunate, because absent those mistakes they could have beaten Oregon and taken a huge step up that ladder.

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