Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Cougars at 4-0

Can it really be possible that one-third of the college football season is over already? It feels like it just started...

Anyway, the Coogs are 4-0 and I only have a few things to say about their last two games.

Houston 35, Louisiana Tech 34: yes, so this was the biggest comeback in University of Houston football history. Down by 27 points with 5:11 remaining in the third quarter, the Cougars rattled off 28 answered points for a thrilling win over the Bulldogs in Ruston. And that's great, except for one thing: it shouldn't have come to that.

The reason the Cougars had to mount such an incredible second-half comeback is because they played like absolute crap for the first 40 minutes of the game. They weren't prepared, they were sloppy and out of synch on both sides of the ball, and they let Louisiana Tech, a team that was led by a 17-year-old true freshman at quarterback and was taken into overtime by FCS program Central Arkansas the week before, utterly dominate them. Why? Moreover, why do these lackluster starts requiring such heroic comebacks happen so often? As Dustin Resnik argues:
As much as you might want to, you can't ignore how the first two and a half quarters played out. How does Houston, a team with hopes of becoming the next BCS buster or joining a BCS conference, get outplayed so massively by a mediocre-looking Louisiana Tech squad?

Every time the Cougars show flashes of brilliance, there's a slip up. For every huge comeback, there was two and a half quarters of ineptitude. For every 2009 stunner of Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, there is the UTEP loss from the same year.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to bring you down after a win for the ages. But there are better teams than Louisiana Tech left on the schedule. We'll know the Cougars have really made it when they don't need the 27-point comeback.

Can the Coogs find a way to play with that same intensity - to bottle that 20 minutes and play like that for an entire game? Because that would be something to see.

I agree. It's time for this talented, senior-laden team to play with full intensity from the opening kickoff. 27-point comebacks might be thrilling, but they're not necessary if the team plays the way they should.

Houston 56, Georgia State 0: fortunately, there were to be no problems with slow starts at home last weekend against an FCS Georgia State football program that is in only its second year of existence. The game was really little more than a scrimmage for the Cougars, as they rolled up 732 yards of total offense. Case Keenum was pulled in the third quarter after completing 29 of 34 passes for 415 yards and two touchdowns and Houston notched their first shutout since 1999. In fact, the most remarkable thing about the game was not what happened on the field, but what happened in the stands around it: the attendance was 32,005, a number that would have been unthinkable for any UH game, let alone a game against an obscure FCS opponent, just a few years ago. It really is amazing what winning, building more on-campus housing, marketing the games to the students, and cultivating a thriving tailgating scene can do for a program that used to struggle so mightily at the gate.

Next up for the Cougars is a Thursday night trip to El Paso to play the UTEP Miners. The Miners might not be very good this year, but the Cougars have traditionally had their hands full with UTEP in the Sun Bowl and their disappointing meltdown there two years ago - another disaster which was caused by a lackluster start - is still fresh in the minds of UH faithful.

Drought could cost Houston area 66 million trees

A sobering footnote to a problem I wrote about a couple of weeks ago:

If you've driven around any of the greener areas of the city like Memorial Park or Hermann Park, you no doubt have noticed a large number of dead or dying trees covered in browning leaves well short of winter. According to Trees for Houston, the city and its surrounding counties could lose 66 million (yes, MILLION) trees as the result of a drought that doesn't show any signs of letting up.

Adding insult to injury, the city is considering spending $4.5 million to remove dead or dying trees on public property -- more than 13 times what they spend on the same service in any given year. The number of trees they would remove if city council approves the measure would be around 15,000 from parks and esplanades.

As the drought continues with little end in sight, more trees will likely succumb to dehydration as well as bugs and disease that ravage trees weakened by the dry conditions.

That is a staggeringly depressing result of the drought. Not only will losing so many trees take an aesthetic toll on the area, but it will also result in economic loss (not only do trees raise property values, but now the city is having to spend money it doesn't have cutting so many dead ones down). The negative impacts of tree loss on this scale will also extend to erosion control, floodwater absorption (assuming it ever floods in Houston again), shading and cooling (trees help reverse the urban heat island effect) and air quality. Furthermore, given the time it takes for the tree canopy to regenerate, these negative effects could be particularly long-lasting.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Houston 48, North Texas 23

Last weekend I took Kirby up to Denton to see the Houston play North Texas in the inaugural game at Apogee Stadium. The $78 million stadium is a sorely-needed replacement for Fouts Field, which was built in 1951 and which was where I watched many a Mean Green football game when I lived in Denton.
As the University of Houston continues to move towards constructing a replacement for aging Robertson Stadium, there are definitely a lot of lessons they can learn from Apogee's design. The sightlines were good and the concession areas were well-planned. I especially liked the width between the seating rows, which made it possible to walk past people without bumping into their knees.
The Mean Green were clearly pumped up to be playing their very first game in their new stadium and gave the slow-starting Coogs all they could handle in the first half. Mean Green quarterback Derrick Thompson, pictured above, completed 21 of 33 passes for 172 yards and ran for another 41 yards. The Cougars did a decent job keying in on UNT's most potent weapon, holding Mean Green running back Lance Dunbar to 62 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.
The Cougars clung toa 20-17 lead at halftime, but took over the game in the second half by scoring 28 unanswered points. In the picture above, Case Keenum stands in the shotgun flanked by running backs Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall. Keenum had an impressive outing, completing 26 of 41 passes for 458 yards and five touchdowns. Hayes led the rushing attack with 13 carries for 76 yards and a touchdown.
Kirby had a dilemma: he could either cheer for his father's undergraduate alma mater or his mother's graduate alma mater. At first he cheered for the Mean Green, but as the Cougars began to pull away he appeared to switch loyalties... The Cougars won handily, 48-23.
The Green Brigade performs at halftime (due to budgetary limitations, Houston did not bring a band or even cheerleaders in spite of the relatively short distance between Houston and Denton). The "home" side of Apogee Stadium features a nice provision of club seating and luxury boxes that simply didn't exist at Fouts Field and will hopefully generate income for the program.

A rather unique view of the stadium can be seen in this cool "gigapan" photograph. A decent contingent of UH fans were on hand for the game, as the photo shows. (Kirby and I are in the photograph, if you zoom in to the lower right side of the stadium and look carefully...)

I had expected this to be a tough game, given the circumstances, so the fact that the final score wasn't a "blowout" does not surprise or concern me. The Mean Green, meanwhile, are a team in rebuilding mode but played admirably. They will improve, and Apogee Stadium is one of the reasons why. The new stadium is attractive to fans as well as recruits and, with a seating capacity of about 31,000, is well-suited to the program's current needs. The 28,075 in attendance, in fact, is the third-largest crowd in Mean Green football history.

Kirby and I spent the night in Denton. It was a bit eerie waking up the following morning of September 11th, because Denton was where Kirby's mother and I were living when it all happened ten years ago.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Coogs exact revenge on UCLA with 38-34 victory

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.

Drought + wind = power outages (and fires!)

Well, it turns out that the "dry" side of Tropical Storm Lee, which passed through Louisiana last weekend, did last Saturday night what the "dry" side of massive, panic-inducing Hurricane Rita couldn't do back in 2005: cause my power to go out.

The prolonged drought that has plagued the Houston area (and most of Texas, for that matter) has killed or at the very least weakened the local tree canopy such that Lee's wind gusts caused massive tree limbs to snap and fall all around my neighborhood. A couple of limbs landed in the streets, impeding vehicular access until they were cut with chainsaws and removed. And, right down the street from me, a limb fell on the power line that serves my house.

Not only did the limb take down the line, leaving my entire block without power, and snap a utility pole, requiring its replacement and therefore causing a lengthy delay in power being restored, but it also caused a transformer to blow, which in turn caused a small fire in a garage apartment three houses down from me. Needless to say, the presence of several fire trucks on my street late Saturday night was as dramatic as it was disconcerting.

The fire was quickly extinguished, but power wasn't restored until the following evening, which was rather annoying. Kirby and I sought refuge Saturday night at his mother's house two blocks away, and, being unable to start the generator that served us so well during Hurricane Ike a few years ago but which hasn't seen action since, Sunday afternoon Kirby and I went down to Sugar Land to stay with my girlfriend Michelle. (Yes, I have a girlfriend now. More about her in a future post.)

I've joked in the past about a tropical storm or hurricane being what it would take to break the devastating drought here in the Houston area. However, considering the weakened condition of the city's trees, maybe it's better that we not get our much-needed rain in that manner. These trees are so parched and fragile that a direct hit from even a minor hurricane would certainly cause much more tree-related havoc in the form of power outages, road blockages and structural damage than what occurred during Ike.

At least the rainbands from Lee that did reach Houston brought a little bit of precipitation Saturday evening. Not much, obviously, but until this drought finally lifts every little bit helps.

Friday, September 02, 2011

And so it begins

Usually, this is the time of year when I write previews for upcoming college football season. However, events of the past couple of weeks (including my awesome end-of-summer trip to Hawaii, pictures of which are coming soon) have prevented me from writing anything this time around.

Which is actually okay, because I really have no idea what to expect from the this fall's installment of college football; not at the national level (Oklahoma is the preseason #1 and Alabama is the preseason #2, but if past history is any indication neither one of these teams will be playing for the BCS title come January) and certainly not at the local level. Even though Case Keenum is back for a sixth season and the Cougars have a relatively easy schedule, I really don't know just how well, or how poorly, the University of Houston football program is going to do this fall.

While I'm obviously grateful that he has been granted a sixth season, which Case Keenum will be returning behind center for the Coogs this fall? The one whose name began appearing in Heisman conversations during the 2009 season or the one who threw 14 interceptions in the last five games before he was injured? And while Keenum has plenty of weapons at his disposal in terms of wide receivers and running backs (including Conference USA Freshman of the Year Charles Sims, who sat out all of 2010 for academic reasons), he's also going to be behind an offensive line that lost three starters from last season and has been completely reconfigured.

Then there's the defense, which was utterly atrocious last season. Last year, the Coogs were 103rd (out of 120 FBS teams) in total defense and 114th in run defense, giving up more than 200 yards per game on the ground. Granted, you can win with a mediocre defense if you have a good enough offense. But therein lies the rub: the UH defense is going to need to make massive strides if they want to improve to merely mediocre this season.

To the credit of head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff, they have spent the offseason trying to plug some holes on the defensive side of the ball. They brought in immediate help for the struggling secondary when they recruited junior college transfers D. J. Hayden and Chevy Bennett, defensive backs who both played on Navarro College's 2010 NJCAA national championship team. Both of them expect to start. The defense also gets a boost with the return of defensive lineman Zeke Riser, who had an impressive true freshman season in 2009 but missed all of last season with an injury. Nor does it hurt that linebackers Marcus McGraw and Sammy Brown, both of whom had strong seasons last year, return.

But as for overall improvement on the defensive side of the ball - they can't get much worse, after all - I'll believe that they're improved when I see it.

Finally, I'm not convinced that this schedule is as easy as it looks. The revenge-minded Cougars start the season with UCLA at home, which win or lose is going to be an emotional match for them (given the size difference between the two teams that was apparent at the Rose Bowl last year even before Keenum went down, I'm fully expecting a loss), and the following week's game in Denton against a North Texas team that will be fired up to play their first game at their new stadium has "trap" written all over it.* From there, the Cougars travel to Ruston to play Louisiana Tech, and back-to-back games on the road are never easy.

After what should be an easy home game against Georgia State, the Cougars go back on the road to play UTEP in El Paso, and we all know what happened the last time the Cougars played there. The following week's home game against an East Carolina team that beat the Cougars for the Conference USA title in 2009 is not going to be a walk in the park, either. After another home game against Marshall, the Cougars then host a Rice team that always gives the Cougars their best shot and in fact have beaten them twice in the last three seasons. Then it's back on the road to play Alabama-Birmingham, whom Houston has only beaten once at Legion Field.

The season ends with another back-to-back road trip against Tulane, a home match against an improving SMU team, and a season-ending trip to play a Tulsa squad that beat the Cougars at Robertson last year. These last two games will likely decide whether the Cougars win C-USA's western division and make it to the conference championship game.

If Case Keenum can regain his 2009 form, the new offensive line performs well, and the defense makes enough improvement to at least be competitive, then this fall could be a good one for the Cougars. They could win ten or eleven games, secure the division title and have a shot at winning the conference. But if the defense continues to be abysmal, the new offensive line can't protect Keenum or open holes for the running game, or Case has a bad season (or, God forbid, gets injured again), then the 2011 campaign could very well be a disappointing one for the Cougars and their fans. I'm obviously hoping for the former, but after last season's disappointment I refuse to make any great expectations for this team.

For what it's worth, collegefootballpoll.com, which has accurately predicted Houston's record within two wins or losses ten out of the last seventeen seasons, foresees a 10-2 regular-season, while Sports Illustrated expects the Coogs to notch a 9-3 record this fall. If the Cougars win 9 or 10 games but do not win their division, however, I think the players, coaches and fans will generally consider the season to be a disappointment. With conference realignment threatening to cause some major changes in the college football landscape, the Cougars need to have a breakout season this fall in order to make some noise on the national stage and to have any hope in being in a better place with the dust settles.

The important thing, however, is that the wait is over. College football is finally here, and I couldn't be happier. Here's to hoping for an exciting season at the national level and a very successful season for the Cougars.

* I don't know what to expect from North Texas under new coach Dan McCarney, either. Obviously last night's 16-41 loss to Florida International was not the way the Mean Green wanted to start the season, but it's going to take time for the new coaching staff to get their philosophy and their personnel in place. 2011 is going to be a rebuilding year for North Texas, and hopefully some improvement will become evident as the season progresses.