Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Cougars lose Hawaii Bowl, end season with 7-5 record

A lackluster season came to a lackluster end in Hawaii on Christmas Eve, as the Cougars fell to the Fresno State Bulldogs, 27-33.

The Cougars scored the first touchdown of the game but sputtered after that; they couldn't even score after the defense intercepted the ball deep in Fresno State territory and didn't find the endzone again until late in the fourth quarter, after the game's outcome had already been decided. Cougar special teams created a spark late in the third quarter when they blocked a Bulldog field goal and returned it 94 yards for a touchdown, but Fresno State slammed the door shut with an 44-yard touchdown return of a D'Eriq King interception late in the game.

Fresno State outgained the Cougars, 473 yards to 341; had 25 first downs to Houston's 17, and led in time of possession, 33:18 to 26:42. All in all, it was not a memorable bowl appearance for Houston.

Nor, for that matter, was it a memorable season. The Coogs ended with a just-above-mediocre 7-5 record, whose highlights include a road win over Power 5 program Arizona and an upset victory over a ranked South Florida team in Tampa. But the Coogs also lost to Tulsa (2-10) and Tulane (5-7), and blew a 17-point lead against Memphis. The Cougars started three different players at quarterback but were never able to find much offensive momentum; they ended the year with an offensive production of 28.2 points per game, which is the program's lowest since the 2005 season.

The UH defense also had its issues, especially in the secondary; the Cougars ended the season as one of the worst teams in the nation in regards to passing yards allowed. But considering that the defense generally did well enough to keep the Cougars close - UH lost four of its five games by a touchdown or less - the focus for improvement going into 2018 really needs to be on the offense. The recent departure of (frankly unimpressive) offensive coordinator Brian Johnson to Florida gives head coach Major Applewhite an opportunity to bring in somebody that fill find a way to being productivity and excitement back to the Cougar offense. That person will also have to do it without graduating key players such as wide receivers Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar or running back Dillon Birden. (The Cougars lose some talent off the defense as well, but Ed Oliver - whom the University will almost certainly promote as a Heisman candidate - returns for one more season.)

As mediocre as the 2017 was, it wasn't quite as disappointing as the 2016 campaign that started out with so much promise and ended with a thud. In fact, I predicted that 2017 would be a unexceptional year for UH. Given the new coaching staff, all the talent that was lost off the 2016 team, and the fact that the season began with the distraction of Hurricane Harvey (which even resulted in the season opener at Texas-San Antonio being canceled), 2017 wasn't so much a "rebuilding" year for the Coogs as it was a "throwaway" year.

If the program wants to remain relevant both locally and nationally, however, Major Applewhite, his staff and his players need to aspire to better performances in 2018. "Rebuilding" year or not, a 7-6 record and a scoring offense that is #65 in the nation is not going to excite the fickle, fairweather fanbase of this city, let alone put the team in position to compete for conference titles.

Oh, and hopefully the UH athletics department will work with the conference and their TV partners to ensure more 6 pm kickoffs next fall, too. 11 am kickoffs ruin tailgating, and in September and even October temperatures at those times can be brutal.

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