Friday, August 27, 2010

Cougar football: looking back at 2009

It's hard to believe that another college football season is upon us already, but it's true: the University of Houston Cougars kick off their 2010 campaign on week from tomorrow.

I realize that I never wrote an end-of-year review of the Coogs' 2009 season. For one thing, I had a lot going on earlier this year (as evidenced by my overall lack of posting in general this spring). For another, the Coogs' pathetic performance in the Armed Forces Bowl left such a bad taste in my mouth that I simply didn't feel like writing about a season that ended on such a sour note. My disappointment has waned with the passage of the offseason, however, and I'm hopeful that the Coogs can put the past behind them and embark on a 2010 season that ends on a much better note.

But before putting the past completely behind, it's useful to take a look at what happened last fall. 2009 was in many ways an amazing year for the Coogs. There were many fantastic victories: the amazing upset of then-5th-ranked Oklahoma State in Stillwater, the thrilling win over Texas Tech before a packed crowd at Robertson (these videos of the "Two Day Drive" still give me goosebumps), a quality win over Mississippi State on the road, a thrilling last-minute victory over C-USA nemesis Southern Miss on Halloween, and this come-from-behind performance at Tulsa that I would not have believed I not seen it with my own eyes:

With the euphoria, however, came the heartbreak. A week after the wild and amazing finish in the video above, the Cougars went to Central Florida and fell to the Golden Knights, 32-37. That loss could be excused by the fact that they were playing back-to-back games on the road, that they were emotionally spent after the miracle at Tulsa, and that the Central Florida team they were playing was pretty good (the Golden Knights ended the season with an 8-4 record). The Coogs' other regular-season loss, a crushing 41-58 defeat at UTEP, is less excusable. While they were coming down off their emotional win over Texas Tech the week before - I even wrote after that game that UTEP had "'letdown' and 'trap' written all over it" - the 2009 Miners turned out to be so bad (a 4-8 record with losses to C-USA cellar-dwellers such as Memphis, Rice and Tulane) that the Coogs should have handled them easily. Then there were the two losses to end the season: a bitter 32-38 result against East Carolina in the C-USA Championship, and of course the 20-47 meltdown against Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. While it's certainly true that the Coogs had trouble getting motivated for that game - their reward for their 10-win season was a trip to the same bowl game to play the same opponent - the fact is that the team still had a lot to play for: a bowl win, a final victory for the seniors, momentum heading into 2010, a probable end-of-season top-25 ranking for the first time in two decades, and good old-fashioned team pride.

A better understanding of what went right and what went wrong for the Coogs in 2009 can be gained by reviewing the statistics.

On offense, the Cougars were (literally) the best in the nation. They were first in the 120-team Football Bowl Subdivision in total offense (563.36 yards per game), tied for first in scoring offense (42.21 points per game; they also led the nation in touchdowns with 77), and first in passing offense (433.71 aerial yards per game). Quarterback Case Keenum led the nation in total offense for the second consecutive year, and was sixth in the nation in passing efficiency.

But even then there were some weak spots. The Coogs were only 83rd in the nation in rushing offense, managing 129.64 yards per game). The lack of a ground game was clearly a factor in Houston's losses to Central Florida and East Carolina, where they managed only 46 and 30 yards, respectively.

While the Cougar offense is clearly a pass-based operation, and while the fact that RB Bryce Beall was playing with injuries for most of the season was probably a factor, the fact remains that the Cougars could have used a more robust ground game in 2009 to keep defenses honest, eat up more clock time (Cougars were 114th in the nation in time of possession, holding the ball for an average of only 26 minutes and 51 seconds per game) and conceivably win those games against Central Florida and East Carolina. A stronger running attack is an offensive priority going into the 2010 season.

I do want to take a moment to recognize the offensive line. The line had lost three starters off the 2008 squad and was a point of concern going into the season, but they performed superbly, protecting Case Keenum by giving up 18 sacks all season - better than 2008's 27 sacks allowed and, at 1.29 sacks per game, good for 24th overall. (The Coogs were also second-best in the nation in tackles per loss allowed, but that's probably an artifact of the pass-oriented offense's ability to get the ball out of the backfield quickly more than it is the line's ability to protect the backs.) I'm hoping to see similar results in 2010, along with improvements in creating holes for the ground game.

While the offense was the nation's best, however, the defense was one of the nation's worst. The defense was 111th in total defense, surrendering 451.29 yards per game, and only marginally better in scoring offense, at 95th with 30.07 points per game allowed (and this average includes the good performances against some of the weaker teams on the schedule: 7 points to FCS Northwestern State, 14 points apiece to Memphis and Rice, 15 points to SMU and 16 points to Tulane). The rushing defense was particularly dreadful; they gave up 226.57 ground yards per game and ended the season ranked 115th. They were somewhat better against the pass, coming in 72nd with 224.71 passing yards per game allowed. One of the defense's problems was the inability to get behind the line; they were 85th in the nation in sacks, averaging only 1.64 per game, and 105th in tackles for loss, managing only 4.64 TFLs per game. The defense also had trouble getting the opposing offense off the field; they were 97th in third down conversion defense, allowing the opponent to convert 43% of the time, and even worse on 4th down, allowing the opponent to convert fully 50% of the time.

Of course, as everybody who followed the Coogs last season, there were reasons for the defense's dismal performance. They had very little depth or experience; three true freshmen were playing on the defensive line. The defense was battered and bruised - the fact that the team's bye week occurred early in the year, forcing the players to go 10 straight games as well as the conference championship without a break, might have played a role - and injuries, especially to the front seven, were especially painful. Notably, the loss of senior Matt Nicholson towards the end of the Texas Tech game robbed the squad of critical on-field leadership and experience.

Given those factors, Defensive Coordinator John Skaladany really didn't have a lot to work with and therefore felt limited as to what kind of schemes he could call. Even so, towards the end of the season I was one of many UH fans who begged for Skaladany to try something new - blitz more, take some risks - do something, anything - to stop the bleeding. The fact that he did not, as well as the fact that the defense's struggles were nothing new - they were 100th in the nation in scoring defense the year before - led head coach Kevin Sumlin to decide to make a change. Skaladany was let go after the season ended, and in his place the Cougars brought in Brian Stewart, a coach with NFL experience who set to work retooling the defensive squad over the offseason, notably by switching to a 3-4 alignment that should work to the defense's strengths.

As for the other aspects of the team's 2009 performance: during Art Briles' tenure I became increasingly frustrated with the "unholy trinity" of turnovers, penalties and lousy special teams play that perennially plagued the team. Under Sumlin, however, there has been vast improvement in those areas. For example, the Cougars were 8th in the nation last season in total penalties, averaging only 4.5 flags per game. That's a far cry from a few seasons before, when they were among the top ten most penalized teams in the nation. Turnovers have also been reduced; they lost the ball 26 times last year, which ranked 83rd in a category where a lower ranking is better (and 9 of those turnovers occurred as a result of Case Keenum interceptions the last two games of the season, which is hopefully just an aberration). The Coogs ended the season +4 in turnover margin (their 30 balls recovered were good for the 11th spot nationally), a good improvement over 2008's -6 margin.

Special teams have become markedly better as well, although there is still room for improvement. Houston has done well with kickoffs, coming in at 35th in the nation in kickoff returns with 23.21 average yards per return and five kickoffs run back for touchdowns, and ranked 44th in kickoff return yardage allowed, at 20.91 per opponent return and only a single kick return touchdown allowed. Punting is a different story, however, as the Coogs' punting return defense allowed 12.15 return yards per punt and ended the season ranked 101st, while Cougar punt returners averaged only 8.81 yards per return - 60th in the nation - and did not return any punts for touchdowns last year. Place-kicking could use improvement as well; Matt Hogan was a perfect 12 for 12 on field goals after replacing Jordan Mannisto, who had missed 4 of his 10 ten attempts, but Hogan was only 88% on extra point attempts, including those three misses against East Carolina in the championship game that were a factor in the Coog's six-point margin of defeat.

There's also the focus factor. In 2008 the Coogs had a problem with slow starts in games; oftentimes they'd come out flat, fall behind by several scores, and have to rally in the second half to try to win. That wasn't really an issue in 2009. What was an issue was motivation for certain games, i.e. UTEP and Air Force, where the team simply didn't come out to play at all. While keeping a group of kids motivated and focused for every game is a tough job for any coach, the momentum-killing letdowns like UTEP and Air Force were clearly dark spots on an otherwise-respectable 2009 season and Sumlin and his staff need to ensure that they don't happen again in 2010 if the Coogs are to achieve their goals: namely, winning Conference USA.

So that was 2009. Considering the team's defensive woes as well as the schedule they faced, I actually believe the Coogs overachieved last year (their ten wins were two more than what I had predicted before the season started). It's just too bad that the season did not end on a more positive note. However, perhaps the feeling of "not finishing the job" will provide the team with added motivation and incentive in 2010.

The offseason has generally been a good one for the Coogs, including an impressive signing day haul, the acquisition of a few JUCO transfers (such as DE Matangi Tonga and LB Sammy Brown) to plug some holes on defense, a good spring practice and recoveries to defensive players such as Matt Nicholson and Jackie Candy. There were some disappointments; WRs L. J. Castile and A .J. Dugat and OLs Ari Tatum and Jarve Dean left the team, and RB Charles Sims (ineligibility) and DL Zeke Riser (injury) will have to sit out the year. The losses of the two receivers and offensive linemen probably won't be much of a factor because the Coogs have so much depth at those positions, but the losses of Sims, who was last year's leading rusher, and Riser, who played admirably in spite of being a true freshman last season, will hurt. However, the Cougars got a late break when RB Michael Hayes transferred in from Blinn Junior College at the beginning of August. He was impressive during fall practice and his presence will at least somewhat mitigate Sims' absence.

Now it's time for the fun to begin. I'll have my 2010 preview up in the newxt few days.

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