Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Houston 38, Sam Houston State 7

The Sam Houston State Bearkats are playing their first season as a member of the FBS. After putting up tough fights against BYU and Air Force, they certainly had plans for a big upset on their minds as they made the short trip from Huntsville to face the struggling Cougars. Alas, it didn't happen for them.

The Good: Freshman RB Parker Jenkins rushed for 105 yards and three touchdowns, which was good enough for Big XII Newcomer of the Week honors. WR Matthew Golden caught nine receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown. On his first snap under center as a UH Cougar, second-string QB Ui Ale threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to Stacy Sneed. The offense did not turn the ball over, and the defense held the Bearkats to 178 total yards of offense.

The Bad: The Cougars were flagged 11 times for 95 yards. Kicker Jack Martin missed a field goal. Houston was 0 for 1 on 4th down conversion attempts.

The Ugly: The Cougar defense recovered two Bearkat turnovers, but could not convert either of them into scores. Through four games, UH has only managed to score 14 points off of nine turnovers. That's... not good.

What It Means: This was a much-needed "get right" game against a lesser opponent that allowed second-stringers to get some playing time and (hopefully) gave the team some confidence. But now the Cougars begin their Big XII schedule in earnest.  

After spending the entire first third of the season within the City of Houston, the Cougars next face Texas Tech in Lubbock.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Robotaxi gridlock!

Coming to a city near you:

Over the weekend, photos and videos of yet another Cruise-induced robotaxi traffic jam spread across X (formerly Twitter). However, unlike the past incidents that have occurred largely in San Francisco, this one wasn't in California. Instead, it was in another of the country's tech hubs and in Tesla's backyard: Austin, Texas.

About 20 Cruise-operated Chevrolet Bolts were seen stuck up and down San Gabriel Street late Saturday night. Some had shifted into the oncoming side of the two-lane street, even forcing a pair of Cruise cars to face one another in some sort of autonomous stand-off, blocking traffic even further.

The actual cause of the jam remains unknown, though it's not uncommon for Cruise vehicles to become stuck and require human intervention—also known as a Vehicle Recovery Event. The individual who posted the photos and videos said they observed the Cruise workers trying to operate the cars via remote control to remediate the situation. A spokesperson hinted that the problem may have been related to pedestrian traffic, though the footage circulating social media does not show an abundance of people nearby during the gridlock.

The self-driving cars are currently in their testing phase in Austin, but it seems like the patience of local residents is also being tested:

The cars have also gotten stuck in crosswalks, at green lights, in intersections, and even played chicken with other Cruise vehicles. In fact, just have a look at the r/Austin subreddit and you'll quickly see how the self-driving experiment has tested the patience of locals.

"There's no city or county anything that is regulating them or overseeing what they are doing," said Travis County Judge Andy Brown, who once hailed a robotaxi and noted in that earlier KXAN report that his car pulled over and stopped in the street midway through the journey. "And the fact that it's in a testing phase but there's not the safeguard of a human in the front concerns me."

City council members are powerless, and the Austin Transportation and Public Works Department can't really do anything to stop Cruise from operating on its streets. Earlier this month, the department issued a memo noting that "Texas cities cannot regulate autonomous vehicles" as their authority is preempted by state law.

But that hasn't stopped residents from complaining about blocked intersections and interference with emergency services. The department has since reached out to equivalent bodies in Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C. for advice.

We may be in for similar experiences here in Houston. Cruise has begun operating autonomous vehicles out of a large lot at the corner of West Alabama and Stanford, and I've seen the vehicles circulating on the streets of Midtown.

I've been following along as autonomous vehicles are being deployed and tested in real-world environments, and while I'm not aware of any more fatalities caused by their testing, the intermittent problems places like San Francisco and Austin are experiencing while these cars are being tested indicates that these cars are only as safe and as functional as their programming allows. So-called "Level 5" autonomy - which allows self-driving cars to operate in any environment and under any condition - is truly a very difficult thing to achieve and there's debate as to whether it's even possible at all

Which is why this technology is only now coming to Houston, and why malfunctions like those being experienced in other cities are likely to occur here as well as the slow process of testing and reprogramming these vehicles continues.

Houston 13, TCU 36

The Cougars' first conference game in the Big XII was entertaining for little while; Houston only trailed by a touchdown at halftime (and it could have been closer if head coach Dana Hologrsen had elected to kick some field goals instead of going for it and failing on fourth downs). But TCU, aided by an inept UH offense, put things away in the second half.

The Good: Matthew Golden returned a TCU kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. It turned out to be the Coogs' only touchdown of the game. 

The Bad: Pretty much everything else. The Cougars were outplayed on both sides of the ball. The offense had by far its worst game of the year, gaining a paltry 266 total yards and a pathetic 41 yards rushing. QB Donavan Smith was intercepted twice and sacked six times. The defense didn't play much better, allowing the Horned Frogs to amass 564 total yards (even as they held TCU to field goal attempts on five of their drives and came up with two turnovers of their own).

The Ugly: This post is brought to you by the number zero. As in ZERO offensive touchdowns, ZERO points scored in the second half, ZERO points off turnovers, and ZERO for four on fourth down conversion attempts.

What It Means: How bad is the Houston offense right now? Ryan Monceaux explains:

UH is averaging 19.33 ppg in regulation. That would put the team 112th nationally (out of 130 teams). Thanks to the two overtimes at Rice Stadium, UH is 94th in scoring. But the fact remains that the offense has scored just 51 points in regulation in the three games. That’s six offensive touchdowns (and three field goals) in three games.

UH has scored over 10 offensive points in only two of six halves this year. In seven of 12 quarters, UH has scored three or fewer points.

Next up for Houston is FBS newcomer Sam Houston State at TDECU Stadium. They better win that one, because I don't see any more wins for the Coogs this season unless something dramatically changes. 

Andy Yanez and Chris Baldwin have more. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Houston 41, Rice 43 (2 OT)

I guess it can't be a rivalry if one team wins all the time, so congratulations to Rice for winning the Bayou Bucket for the first time since 2010. But honestly: the Owls were greatly helped by the fact that the Cougars didn't even bother to show up.

The Good: To the extent that coming back from a 28-point deficit to tie a game with fifteen seconds left - and scoring the first touchdown of overtime to string together 35 unanswered points - is "good," then I guess that's a positive. But obviously it never should have come to that. The comeback was actually triggered late in the first half when Rice QB JT Daniels was intercepted in the end zone by Cougar CB Isaiah Hamilton to keep Rice from going into the locker room up 35-7. 

On a night where most of the Cougar players might has well have stayed on the bus, DE Nelson Ceasar (two sacks and three tackles for loss) and WR Samuel Brown (9 receptions for 138 yards) both played notably well.

The Bad: The Cougars' slow start. Rice scored touchdowns on their first four possessions, while the anemic Cougar offense went interception, punt and punt on their first three. Rice racked up 341 yards of total offense in the first half, while the Coogs could only manage 94. The Owls were clearly more motivated and played a faster and more physical game than the Cougars did: one team came out of the locker room prepared to play, while the other did not. 

On their first possession of the second half, the Cougars elected to go for it on 4th and goal from the Rice 8 rather than kick an easy field goal. As it turned out, had the Cougars taken those points the game never would have gone into overtime. And in the second overtime, needing a two-point conversion to extend the game, Houston opted to attempt a fade route to the corner of the endzone: a low-percentage play that failed and gave Rice the win. Hindsight being 20-20 and all, these were both bad decisions.

As bad as the Cougars were in the first half, Rice was pretty awful in the second half. They were trying to play conservative, run-out-the-clock football but didn't do it very well; one Rice series was a three-and-out that only took 49 seconds off the clock! It didn't help that a Rice fumble late in the third quarter led to an easy Houston touchdown to bring the Coogs within two scores.

The Problematic: After the game, Nelson Caesar admitted that the team "took Rice for granted." But how do you take for granted a crosstown rival? How do you overlook a team that nearly beat you a year ago? Head coach Dana Holgorsen, for his part, offered up a stream of "maybes" as for why the Cougars didn't play well: maybe the team overexerted themselves in practice, or maybe they didn't take Rice seriously enough, or maybe they were looking forward to TCU the following week, or maybe whatever. While he did admit that he is ultimately responsible for his team's performance, these "maybes" simply speak to a team culture and identity that he's never been able to cultivate during his four-plus years (at four-plus million dollars per year) at Houston. I don't expect that's ever going to change as long as he's here, either.

What It Means: When the Cougars begin the season (first or second game of the year) with a win over Rice, they average eight wins per season. When they lose to Rice at the beginning of the season, they average 2.8 wins. 

Up next for Houston is their Big XII Conference opener against 2022 CFP runner-up TCU at TDECU Stadium. 

Ryan scratches his head at a "bizarre" game, while Chris Baldwin thinks the TCU matchup is a "near must win" for Houston. I'm not going to hold my breath.

Thursday, September 07, 2023

Houston 17, Texas-San Antonio 14

The Cougars opened the season - their first in the Big 12 Conference - with a win at home against the Texas - San Antonio Roadrunners.  It was low-scoring affair; the Roadrunners pulled within three with 5:42 left in the fourth quarter but the Coogs sealed the victory with a clock-chewing, game-ending drive (that may have been aided by a favorable after-review spot from the refs). 

The Good: The UH defense intercepted veteran UTSA quarterback Frank Harris three times. Cornerback (and East Carolina transfer) Malik Fleming accounted for two of those interceptions, along with a 48-yard punt return. That return led to one of Houston's touchdowns; one of Fleming's interceptions led to the other.

Quarterback (and Texas Tech transfer) Donavan Smith was serviceable but not spectacular in his Houston debut, completing 22 or 34 passes for 233 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. However, his receivers looked good. Samuel Brown, Joseph Manjack IV and Matthew Golden combined for 16 receptions and 209 yards; Manjack and Golden both had touchdowns.

The Cougars did not turn the ball over and were only flagged for three penalties. That's right: only three penalties.

The Bad: The UH offense was plodding and predictable. The offensive line clearly struggled to establish the run game - the Cougars managed only 101 rushing yards for 2.7 yards per carry - and had problems protecting Smith as well: he was hurried on multiple occasions and sacked three times. The offense was inefficient, converting only 5 of 15 third downs and zero of 2 fourth downs. Finally, the offense struggled to score points off turnovers; the three interceptions only resulted in seven UH points. 

Post game, head coach Dana Hologrsen called the cougar offernse "a work in progress." Here's to hoping that things comes together sooner rather than later.

The Ugly: UTSA did not help themselves with stupid penalties. Late in the first half, UTSA hit Smith out of bounds to move the ball into field goal range and allow the Coogs go into the locker room with a 10-7 lead. And in the second half, the Roadrunners were flagged on a UH field goal attempt because they lined up over the long snapper. That gave the Cougars a fresh set of downs and led to their second toucchdown of the day. 

The Uniforms: Were the Oilers-inspired, Columbia blue uniforms gimmicky and polarizing among UH fans? Sure. But the players loved them, and social media ate them up. Unfortunately UH athletics missed a great marketing opportunity by not having merchandise in the colors available for sale.

What It Means: It wasn't pretty, but it was a season-opening win over a school that won eleven games last year and actually slightly favored by Vegas to win. Ryan thinks that Saturday's game was one that the Cougars would have lost in previous years. Heartland College Sports, Underdog Dynasty and PaperCity's Chris Baldwin have more.

The Cougars now make the short trip up Brays Bayou to face the Rice Owls.

Friday, September 01, 2023

2023 Houston Cougar Football Preview

The 2023 college football season begins in the shadow of ongoing conference realignment madness. Just today it was confirmed that Stanford, Cal and SMU will be joining the ACC next season. So yes, next year there will be California schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It doesn't make much sense, but that's where the sport is today, for better or for worse.

The churn of conference realignment means that the Cougars will be playing in a new home this season: the Big 12. It's a step upward for the program, but it will probably come with some growing pains.

Looking Back: A season that began with promise (the Cougars began the season in the top 25) ended in mediocrity, with a 7-5 record (two games worse than my prediction of a nine-win regular season) and a victory over Louisiana-Lafayette in the Independence Bowl. 

While I'll take the winning season and bowl trophy, the 2022 campaign was nevertheless a disappointment. The defense struggled (the Cougars ended the season 104th out of 130 FBS teams in total defense and 111th in scoring defense), the offense was plagued with sluggish starts (the Coogs were held scoreless in the first quarter 7 times in 13 games), and the team as a whole was undisciplined (124th in penalty yards per game). 

The Big Story for 2023: The Cougars have spent the better part of three decades wandering in the wilderness since the Southwest Conference broke up in 1995. Now, they rejoin the premier ranks of college football as a member of a (now) "Power Four" conference. Gone are conference mates with little regional appeal like Temple, East Carolina and Tulsa. In their stead are old SWC foes such as Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech and (for one season, at least) Texas, an even older Missouri Valley Conference foe in Oklahoma State, and interesting new opponents like West Virginia and Kansas State.

With this step up in prestige comes a step up in competition, and the Cougars need to prove that they belong. 

Reasons for Optimism: There's been a lot of roster turnover but there's definitely some talent on this team. Texas Tech transfer Donovan Smith will take over as quarterback; he is already well-known to UH fans since he converted a 4th-and-20 against the Cougars last season. He'll have a strong wide receiving corps to work with, as Matthew Golden (38 catches for 584 yards and 7 TDs a year ago) and Joseph Manchack return; they will be joined by a couple of transfers. Stacy Sneed and Brandon Campbell, who combined for almost 1000 rushing yards last season, return in the backfield and are joined by West Virginia transfer Tony Mathis, Jr. The offensive line returns NFL-caliber talent in OT Patrick Paul, as well as a new coach in Eman Naghavi, who spent last season at Tulane.

The defensive line is going to be formidable. DE Nelson Ceaser may be best defensive player on the team; he'll be joined by DE David Ugwoegbu and DT Chidozie Nwankwo. Linebackers will be anchored by senior leader Hasaan Hypolite (31 tackles at safety last year) and Jamal Morris (42 tackles). Alex Hogan returns at DB.

There's also a bit of an advantage in the schedule, as Houston plays eight games in the City of Houston and only leaves the State of Texas twice.

Reasons for Pessimism: Where to begin? To start with, the schedule is much tougher than anything the Cougars have faced in recent memory. With an upgrade in conferences comes an upgrade in opponents; three of Houston's opponents are ranked in the preseason AP poll (and four in the coaches' poll).

There's also that issue of roster turnover. Major contributors to last year's team are gone: QB Clayton Tune, WR Tank Dell (who led the nation in receiving yards and receiving TDs last season), LB Donavan Mutin and DL Derek Parish have all moved on to the NFL, while RB Alton McCaskill, who sat out the 2022 season with an injury but was expected to return as the team's offensive workhorse this season, transferred to Colorado. There are over 40 new players on the roster this season, and it's going to take time for them to gel.

Finally, there's head coach Dana Holgorsen, whose performance up to this point has been underwhelming. Yeah, there was that 12-2 season two years ago against a butter-soft schedule, but last year his team underachieved. Why should he be expected to do better this season against better competition?

What the Computers Think: Massey gives the Cougars a greater than 50% chance of winning only three games. Jeff Sagarin's starting ratings for the 2023 season imply a 5-7 record for the Cougars with home field advantage taken into account (and three of those wins are marginal). ESPN's Football Power Index, likewise, foresees a 5-7 season for the Coogs. Congrove is a bit more bullish on Houston, predicting a 7-5 campaign.

What the Humans Think: Houston was picked to finish 12th (out of 14 teams) in the Big 12 Media Preseason Poll, ahead of only Cincinnati and West Virginia. USA Today's Erick Smith has the Cougars finishing 13th in the conference, while the writers at CBS Sports see the Coogs finishing anywhere from 9th to 14th. CollegeFootballNews foresees a 5-7 season record for Houston.

What I Think: While I'm happy that the Cougars finally find themselves among the "haves" of the college football world and look forward to new and rekindled rivalries in the Big 12, I just don't think that their first season among the big boys will be a particularly good one: the Cougars need to pay their dues.

I'm am predicting a 4-8 season record for the Cougars, with wins against UTSA, Rice and Sam Houston, and a single conference win over Holgorsen's former employer, West Virginia, on a nationally-televised Thursday night. But even then I'm not all that confident about those games; quite frankly. there isn't a game on the schedule that the Cougars can't lose. 

Dana Holgorsen and his players know that expectations for the program are low, and they relish being the underdog. Which is great. But after watching his overall underperformance during his four years at Houston, I'm skeptical of his ability to get these players to reach their potential. This fall would be as good a time as any to prove me wrong.

Houston begins the season tomorrow at home against Texas-San Antonio. Vegas actually has the Roadrunners slightly favored in this one, and we all remember what happened the last time UTSA came to TDECU Stadium.

Houston's 1923 transit network

If you've ever wondered what Houston's transit network looked like exactly 100 years ago, Christof Spieler has you covered. He created a fascinating map of Houston's streetcar and interurban system a century ago, using the same style and color scheme as METRO's current system map (where red routes run at least every 15 minutes, blue routes run every 16-30 minutes, and green routes run every 31-60 minutes):

Christof explains that the streetcar routes he shows "were the equivalent of buses today, largely running in mixed traffic and stopping every block or two; the only major line like today’s light rail was the interurban to Galveston." This is why the Galveston-Houston Electric Railway is denoted with a thick purple line (like today's Purple Line LRT). This rail line, of course, has long since been replaced by the Gulf Freeway.

In subsequent posts, Christof also compares Houston's 1923 transit network with its 2023 network. Frequencies were better back then; most routes ran at eight to twelve minute headways. Furthermore, routes were closer together than they are today, meaning shorter walking distances for riders. However, the 1923 system covered a much smaller area than today's network because Houston was obviously a much smaller city back then. It was also much more walkable; in 1923 the United States still hadn't begun redesigning its cities to accommodate the automobile so the urban environment was denser. 

Finally, Christof observes that many neighborhoods served by "red" streetcar routes (with headways of 15 minutes or shorter) generally enjoy "red" bus service today as well, for example Midtown, Montrose, the Near Northside or the Washington Avenue Corridor. He explains that "the dense, walkable neighborhoods the streetcars created survived them." This is emphasized by the fact that some of today's light rail lines follow the same routes as the streetcars of a century ago: the Green Line follows the Harrisburg streetcar route, while the Red Line follows the Heights - South End and Institute Shuttle routes south of downtown and the North Main - Leeland route north of downtown.

1923 is significant because it was the last year that Houston's public transportation system consisted entirely of streetcars; the first buses would begin operating along the city's streets in 1924. Houston's last streetcar routes ceased operating in June of 1940.

The definitive history of Houston's streetcar network was written by Steven M. Baron in his 1996 book Houston Electric: The Street Railways of Houston, Texas