Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Dana Holgorsen fired after Cougars lose to UCF, 13-27

The Houston Cougars ended their 2023 campaign with a trip to Orlando to face the University of Central Florida Knights. The Coogs scored a touchdown on their opening possession and led 10-6 at the end of the first quarter, but were outscored 3-21 the rest of the way by a UCF team fighting for bowl eligibility. I'm not going to waste keystrokes on the good, bad or ugly of this loss; Ryan does a good job describing the game (and the Coogs' dismal second half of the season) for anybody who wants to read the gory details.

The Cougars end the 2023 season with a miserable 4-8 record, which matches my preseason prediction (I thought they'd beat Rice but lose to Baylor). One of those four wins was a comfortable victory over FBS newcomer Sam Houston State; the other three came by a combined total of 6 points. Despite having an "offensive guru" at their helm, the Cougars' 23.7 points per game is the fewest the Cougar offense has averaged since the 2004 season. The defense was atrocious as well; the 31.5 points per game the Coogs surrendered this season ranked them 105th out of 130 FBS teams.

The morning after the game, the University of Houston administration bit the bullet on head coach Dana Holgorsen's "fucking impossible buyout" and relieved him of coaching duties after five seasons and a very mediocre 31-28 record. 

The University of Houston took a gamble on Dana Holgorsen: they hired him away from a West Virginia program that was about to dismiss him, made him the highest-paid coach in the Group of Five at the time, and fired Major Applewhite after only two (winning) seasons in order to make room for him. It was a gamble that, unfortunately, did not pay off. The exciting offense fans expected to see from him never materialized, the program was trending downward, attendance at TDECU Stadium was dwindling, and there was no hope that things would get better next year (especially given Holgorsen's excuses regarding his poorly-rated 2024 high school recruiting class). It was simply time for the University to cut its losses and move on.

Ryan believes that Holgorsen "was his own worst enemy" as Houston's head coach:

One of the biggest problems with Dana Holgorsen was the way he negatively recruited against UH. Opposing coaches did not even have to do it; they just had to keep a folder full of Dana’s quotes about his own program. By constantly shirking blame, by saying how hard it is at Houston, by saying facilities were not up to par, that he could not compete until he had upgraded facilities, by pushing players out, by losing starters like Alton McCaskill (NIL) and Cam’Ron Johnson (loyalty to Brandon Jones and NIL), by flailing in the transfer portal when UH had specific and immediate needs, and by not grinding in recruiting like those he was competing with.

The public perception of Dana was a whiner who was constantly focused on what UH could not do and what UH did not have. Some of what he said was 100% true, but when the only message that gets out is negative, that’s your public perception.

That's the way I see it was well: Dana gave us plenty of whining and plenty of excuses. He gave us bizarre playcalling and clock management decisions and poor team discipline. What he didn't give us was an explosive offense that attracts fans, teams that continually showed improvement over the course of the season, or signature victories. Of his 31 wins at Houston, only nine of them came against FBS programs that ended their season with a winning record. His only win over a Power 5 program with a winning season was this year's hail-mary fluke victory over West Virginia. Ryan continues:

You can’t point to one thing that pushed UH to make the change. But the totality of poor on-field performance, no optimism for the future, poor recruiting and efforts in the transfer portal, no serious commitment to NIL, his public persona, and fan and season ticket holder apathy forced UH decision-makers to fire him.

The University of Houston administration now begins the search for the program's sixteenth head coach. Chris Baldwin and Josh Criswell have more.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Houston 30, #23 Oklahoma State 43

The Cougars led this game 23-9 at one point in the second quarter. Could they hold on for the win?

Of course they couldn't.

The Good: Houston QB Donovan Smith had a touchdown trifecta: passing, receiving, and rushing for scores. In the first quarter, Isiah Hamilton picked off a pass from OSU QB Alan Bowman and ran it back 57 yards for a touchdown - Houston's first pick six of the year.  The Houston defense also stuffed Bowman in the endzone for a safety.

The Bad: After falling behind 23-9, Oklahoma State scored 27 unanswered points to take the lead and eventually win the game. Oklahoma State's run began late in the second half, when Smith threw an interception right to a Cowboy receiver. OSU would later score.

The Ugly: Early in the game, the Cougars stopped the Cowboys on 3rd and 19... And then were flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that gave OSU a first and ten. The Cowboys would go on to score on that possession. Stupid, undisciplined football. 

What It Means: with seven losses on the season, the Cougars are officially eliminated from bowl contention.

The Coogs end the season against Central Florida in Orlando.

If Dana Holgorsen is retained as head coach after the end of this season, I am going to have to think long and hard about whether I want to renew my season tickets for 2024. This unprepared, undisciplined, uninspired version of college football he's coaching is simply unwatchable.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Three former UH football players perish in downtown car crash

Shocking and sad.

Six people, including three former University of Houston football players, were killed in a violent crash in downtown Houston early Saturday morning, officials confirmed.

The former UH football players were identified as D.J. Hayden, who went on to play eight seasons in the NFL, Zachary McMillian and Ralph Oragwu. Family members confirmed another one of the victims was Lauren Robinson-Holliday. They, along with two other people, were all in the same vehicle that was hit by a speeding Chrysler, Robinson-Holliday's family said. 

These deaths occurred only a few hours before Homecoming at the University of Houston, casting a pall over the planned festivities. Although these players finished their careers over a decade ago, they were still well-known to fans and football staff alike.

A product of Elkins High School in Missouri City, D. J. Hayden played for the Cougars and was  a standout cornerback until he suffered a life-threatening injury in practice during the 2012 season. (The Cougars even wore special uniforms to honor him after the incident.) Hayden miraculously recovered from the injury, and was chosen in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders. He played eight seasons in the NFL with the Raiders, the Detroit Lions and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Since retiring from the NFL, he was serving as the defensive backs coach for Second Baptist School. 

Zachary McMillian, who attended Dulles High School in Fort Bend County, followed in his father's footsteps as a football player for the University of Houston from 2010 to 2013, where he was a defensive back. In his senior season, he was third in the American Athletic Conference with five interceptions. 

Ralph Oragwu attended Fort Bend ISD's Marshall High School before going on to play football for the University of Houston. He was an offensive lineman and played from 2009 through 2013.

Robinson-Holliday was also originally from Fort Bend County and was apparently friends with the football players. She attended East Texas Baptist University and Lamar University.   

The University of Houston has since announced that former player Jeffery Lewis, who played from 2009 through 2012, was also involved in the crash and is recovering at the hospital.

This accident occurred at the intersection of Pierce and Fannin, less than a mile away from my house:

Shortly after 2 a.m., police said a black Acura SUV was traveling southbound on Fannin Street. That vehicle had a green light at the intersection with Pierce Street. At the same time, police said a black Chrysler 300 was going eastbound on Pierce Street at a high rate of speed and went through a red light at Fannin, hitting the Acura. Police said people in both vehicles were ejected, including the driver of the Chrysler and three people in the Acura. The Chrysler also hit and killed a man on the sidewalk, who police believe was homeless. 

The Chrysler driver and three others were pronounced dead at the scene.  Four people were taken to the hospital. Two of them were declared dead there. A third person at the hospital has life-threatening injuries. 

At this point, we don't know the identity of the Chrysler driver or the man on the sidewalk who was killed.  (Update: the at-fault driver's name was Christian Herrera; the homeless person's name was Frank Robinson.)

According to family members, Hayden, McMillian, Oragwu and Robinson-Holliday were all in the black Acura.

Way too many motorists use the wide, one-way streets of downtown and Midtown as their personal speedways, especially at night, and don't pay attention to traffic signals. I've seen this happen too many times; in fact, I was smacked by a careless driver in Midtown just a few weeks ago (I'm fine, but the 2010 Altima is no longer; I'll have more to say about this later). Fortunately, neither myself or the other driver was injured in my crash. The same unfortunately cannot be said for the three UH football players and three others who died in this crash.

Just senseless and heartbreaking.

ESPN, Ryan and Chris Baldwin have more.

Houston 14, Cincinnati 24

You'd think that the Cougars, coming off a dramatic road win against a former Southwest Conference rival the week before, would be amped up to come back to TDECU for Homecoming and flex on a 2-7 team they haven't beaten since 2016. 

You'd be wrong.

The Ugly: The entire game. The UH offense could only manage 12 first downs and a meager 241 yards of total offense for the entire game. Of the Coogs' 11 offensive possessions, 9 ended in either punts, turnovers (QB Donovan Smith was intercepted three times) or failed fourth down conversion attempts. The defense surrendered 368 total yards to the Bearcats; Cincinnati RB Corey Kiner carved through the UH run defense like a warm knife through soft butter, with 129 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The Cougars simply weren't prepared for this game.

Brad Towns expresses his frustration at Holgorsen's inability to have his team mentally focused to take on beatable opponents, such as Rice and Cincinnati:

Back in September, I had a hard time believing players could take an opponent for granted. Especially a local rival. I am having an even harder time believing that this team would overlook a Cincinnati team that had pounded UH each time they played under this coaching staff.

The Bearcats were on a 7-game losing streak, and UH was coming off a bounce-back road win against Baylor. A bowl game was on the line and within reach, and it was Homecoming, too. This was the perfect setting to get things right and prove this team was improving.

And then they went out and got rolled. Don’t let the score fool you, UH was completely dominated by a 2-7 team. It is one thing to lose, it is another to get outworked and outfought on the field. Especially at home. Houston is now 14-12 at home under Holgorsen, 12-12 vs. FBS teams.

A loss Saturday against Oklahoma State and Holgorsen would be sub-.500 vs. FBS teams at home. His predecessor Major Applewhite – fired after two years because the program was in shambles – was 9-3 at home (8-3 vs. FBS teams).

Sometimes teams are just more talented, and there is not much you can do to beat them. But no UH team should overlook anyone, and they should never have an opponent play harder or want it more.

That is wholly unacceptable by players and it is unacceptable that this continued lack of wanting and effort can be accepted by the coaching staff.

The Homecoming "crowd" at TDECU was pretty ugly as well. Most of the 34,312 tickets sold for this game clearly went unused. The University's fair-weather, front-runner fanbase has given up on Holgorsen and the Cougars.

What It Means: The Cougars need to win their final two games (at home, against Oklahoma State, and on the road, against Central Florida) to become bowl eligible. The chances of that happening are somewhere between slim and none.

On Sunday, Texas A&M fired head coach Jumbo Fisher after six seasons and a 45-25 record. His buyout will be around $77 million. You'd think that if the Aggies can admit they made a mistake and move on in spite of the cost, the UH athletics administration could bite the bullet and do the same for somebody who has been 31-26 over almost five seasons, has essentially given up on recruiting his 2024 class, routinely misjudges his team's gameday readiness, and has clearly lost the interest of the school's fanbase. At this point, it may cost Houston more (in lost ticket sales and other gameday revenues) to keep Holgorsen than to let him go.

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

The Last Three Games

Things have been happening in my life over the past several weeks that have taken attention away from this blog. So I'll just provide a quick recap of the most recent three games of the 2023 University of Houston Cougar football season. 

Houston 24, #8 Texas 31: The overlap between the schools entering the Big 12 and the schools leaving it meant that the Houston Cougars and the Texas Longhorns got to face each other for the first time since 2002 and only the fourth time since the Southwest Conference broke up. After yet another slow start - the Cougars were behind 0-21 at one point - Houston rallied to put a scare into the #8 Texas Longhorns at TDECU Stadium.

Houston QB Donovan Smith completed 32 of 46 passes for 378 yards and three touchdowns. Matthew Golden caught two of those touchdown passes, while Joseph Manjack IV had one score (both receivers had 88 receiving yards on the day). The ability of Houston receivers to get open against the Texas secondary was refreshingly surprising. After giving up 21 unanswered points, the UH defense made adjustments that limited the Longhorns to just 10 points for the rest of the game; Texas was held to a dismal 3 of 12 on third down conversion attempts. (They also bizarrely attempted a fake field goal that UH special teams snuffed out.)

With the good came the bad, however. Smith turned the ball over twice; once on a sack-and-fumble and once on an interception. The Cougar rushing game could only manage a paltry 14 yards for the entire game. That said, the Cougars had a chance in this game up until the very end, when the Longhorns might have caught a break from the refs. Houston had third-and-1 at the Texas 10-yard line with just over a minute left in the game. The Cougars handed off RB Stacy Sneed, who appeared to gain enough for a first down at the Texas 9-yard line. However, the referees marked the ball closer to the 10-yard line. The Cougars then failed to convert on the ensuing fourth-and-inches play, securing the win for the Horns.

Things that make you go hmmm. 

The announced crowd of 42,812 is the second-largest crowd in TDECU Stadium history. Yes, a lot of them were wearing burnt orange. But the game was a lot of fun and I hope another 21 years don't go by before the Longhorns and Cougars play each other again.

The Chron's James Mueller writes that the Cougars, "which almost nobody gave a chance of beating Texas, had the No. 8 team in the country on the ropes." Ryan points out that the Cougars squandered chances to win this game even before the questionable spot occurred.

Houston 0, Kansas State 41: Not much to say about this one. The Cougars, having to go on the road to chilly Manhattan, Kansas after the emotional letdown of the Texas game, were clearly unprepared and unmotivated. The embarrassing result was Houston's first shutout since 2000. The Cougars couldn't do anything right on either side of the ball; even when they were gifted a Wildcat fumble on the KSU 26-yard line early in the second quarter, they couldn't convert it into any points. 

Ryan calls the game "disorganized and pitiful" and points out that UH's 208 yards of total offense "is the lowest output of the Dana Holgorsen era." Yet some people in the national media still think he is an "offensive guru."

Houston 25, Baylor 24 (OT): The "Pillow Fight on the Brazos" pitted two 3-5 teams against each other. And it was about as ugly as one would expect. Neither team could score in the first quarter, but a 26-yard touchdown pass from Donovan Smith to Samuel Brown in the second half gave the Cougars a seven-point halftime lead. Baylor would tie things up in the fourth quarter, but another Donovan Smith touchdown - this time a 24-yard pass to Tony Mathis, Jr. - gave the Coogs the lead again.

On the very next possession, the Bears threw an interception deep in their own territory, giving the Cougars a chance to pad their lead. Instead, the Coogs failed to make a first down and missed a field goal attempt. Baylor got the ball back, and - aided by Houston's failure to prevent the Bears from converting 4th and 17 (!) - marched right down the field to score a touchdown with 30 seconds left and force the game into overtime, where they got the ball first and promptly scored again. The Cougars responded with a touchdown of their own on a Donovan Smith one-yard run into the endzone, and then decided attempt a two-point conversion to either win or go home. 

The resulting play, christened "Horns Down," worked. After lining up in a five-wide set, Smith scrambled into the endzone to give the Coogs the one-point victory. A gutsy decision, yes, but given the state of the Cougars defense at that point it was also probably the right call. 

The one-point overtime victory over Baylor was Houston's first over the Bears since 1993 and their first win on the road over an established Big 12 school. It also gave a measure of revenge for UH fans still bitter that Baylor was included in the Big 12, at Houston's expense, when the Southwest Conference broke up. 

What All of This Means: The Cougars are now 4-5 and can still make a bowl if they win at least two of their last three games. Which is somewhat miraculous, considering how rough this season has been.