Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Cougars defeat Auburn in TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl, end season ranked #17

The Houston Cougars ended the 2021 football season on a high note two weeks ago by defeating the Auburn Tigers in Birmingham, 17-13. The bowl victory results in a 12-2 season for the Coogs, as well as a #17 ranking in both the AP and Coaches polls. 

The Good: QB Clayton Tune passed for 283 yards and two touchdowns: one to Alton McCaskill on the first series of the game, and another to Jake Herslow in the fourth quarter to take the lead for good. Although he didn't score any touchdowns, Nathaniel Dell was clutch his 150-yard receiving performance that included four third down conversions and one fourth down conversion. Kicker Dalton Witherspoon contributed by nailing a 52-yard field goal. 

But this game was a defensive struggle, so praise must be given to a Cougar defense that flustered Auburn's offense all afternoon. They allowed only one touchdown, recorded seven tackles for loss, and limited the Tigers to 4 of 15 third-down conversion attempts and only one of three fourth down conversion attempts. 

The Bad: The Cougars threw two interceptions and otherwise sputtered at times, scoring only three points in the second and third quarters and converting only 6 of 14 third-down conversion attempts. The UH defense forced no turnovers of their own and had trouble containing Auburn RB Tank Bigsby, who amassed a combined 164 rushing and receiving yards. In fact, Auburn might actually had won the game if they had kept giving the ball to Bigsby instead of trying to pass the ball on short-yardage situations.

The Stupid: One of Houston's two interceptions was the result of a gimmick play whereby Tune lateraled to TE Seth Green, who then attempted to throw back to Tune in double coverage. That kind of trickery was completely unnecessary in a grind-it-out game such as this. Fortunately, Auburn could not convert either of its interceptions into points.

The Pleasantly Surprising: Auburn fans. Given that we were in "enemy territory" - the crowd was easily 90% Auburn - we were ready to receive some heckling, if not outright hostility, from the opposing fans. However,  every Auburn fan we encountered was very nice. They asked us sincere questions about our quarterback and our schedule, and they all congratulated us afterwards. Very classy!

What it means: Yes, Auburn had a bunch of players missing due to injury, opt-out, or (in two cases during the game) ejections for targeting. Yes, the Coogs may have gotten a little bit of help from the refs (an obvious intentional grounding call on Tune was ignored). Yes, Auburn might have made things easier on Houston by insisting on passing the ball when it would have made more sense to give it to Bigsby. But none of that should detract from the fact that the Cougars defeated an SEC blueblood, despite giving up two turnovers, in front of what was basically a home Auburn crowd. This win was a huge accomplishment for the program and an excellent end to a surprisingly good season.

With the win, the Cougars snap a four-game bowl losing streak; they are now 12-16-1 all-time in bowl games. They end the season ranked for only the 15th time in program history and as one of only two Texas teams to be ranked. And they rather convincingly blew my preseason prediction of a 7-5 season out of the water.

Underdog Dynasty's Steve Helwick recaps the bowl game and assigns end-of-season grades to the Cougars.  Dave Campbell's Texas Football provides its own review of the Coogs' 2021 season and suggests that "Houston should be considered the favorite to win the AAC in 2022." ESPN's Mark Schlabach ranks UH #13 on his "way too early" top 25 for 2022, and Paper City's Chris Baldwin sums things up thus

For now, UH beating an SEC team in its own homeland is another important step forward. Soon, it just might be expected.

Houston will begin the 2022 season in San Antonio, when they face the UTSA Roadrunners in the Alamodome on Labor Day weekend. The full 2022 schedule should be out within the next couple of months. 

Finally, congratulations to Georgia for winning their first national championship since 1980.

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