Everybody knows how the Houston Cougar offense works. Pass on first down. Pass on second down. Pass on third down. Keep passing until you score or you have to punt. Yes, that's how the Cougars spread offense works, only that's not how the Cougars spread offense really works.
The Houston Cougars have one of the best running games in Conference USA, powered by junior running back Bryce Beall. Beall has rushed for 629 yards in seven games this season. Together with junior transfer Michael Hayes, the UH backfield has rushed for 886 yards for an average of 126.6 yards per game. As a pair, they've totaled 19 touchdowns, and Beall's 12 touchdowns on the season are three short of the school record. And in last week's victory over SMU, Beall set the school's record for career rushing TDs with 32.
"As I've said the last couple of weeks, these two guys are playing as well as anybody on our team right now," head coach Kevin Sumlin said earlier this week. "They're really complimentary players. I thought this week [against SMU] they played hard for each other without the ball in their hand. They did an excellent job of blocking -- it's very gratifying as a coach to see guys like that, who are in the same position, that really actually enjoy playing the game, and playing together."
This season is a return to form for Beall, who as a freshman was the C-USA offensive newcomer of the year, but who battled injuries and a sophomore slump last season. But he came in this season with a renewed focus on his game, and he's elevated himself to a new level.
"I think, just like anything else, it's a learning process," Sumlin said. "I could not be prouder or happier with the way Bryce Beall has handled this whole year. How he has come back. He has matured not only as a player, but as a person."
And Hayes is a juco transfer from Blinn Junior College who didn't speak for his first several weeks on the team, but who has settled into a nice combo with Beall that is appreciated not only by Sumlin, but by Beall. Beall claims his season, which also includes three games with 100-plus rushing yards, and which has seen him set the school record for career touchdowns, would not be possible with Hayes.
"When I'm on the field, Michael is my eyes off the field," Beall says. "And when he's on the field, I tell him what I see."
And if the Cougars, 4-3 on the season (3-1 in C-USA) are going to rebuild a season that was seemingly falling apart just weeks ago, it's going to be through the work of Beall and Hayes who have the capability to take over a game on the ground and ease the pressure on that passing game for which the Cougars are famous.
"Those two guys are not real big guys, but they're running extremely hard," Sumlin said. "They're playing the game the way it's supposed to be played. And really have made a statement to our whole football team that, you know what, no matter what happens, we can get it done. And I think that's important."
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This week the Cougars take on the1-6 Memphis Tigers (0-4 in C-USA), perhaps the worst team in Conference USA. And while he claims no disrespect, Sumlin makes it clear that the key to victory over Memphis isn't concentrating on Memphis, but concentrating on his own team, one that is dealing with replacing one of the nation's top quarterbacks, rebuilding a defensive line that's been torn apart by injuries, and filling a leadership void caused by the absence of several key players.
"We've got enough problems," he says. "I told you last week, it had nothing to do with who we're playing. We've got to deal with our team, and deal with -- how we prepare is as important as who we play. That's not disrespectful to our opponents, I think it's where we are right now with a team that's trying to really still redefine itself. I know for our fans it's frustrating. I know for a lot of people outside it's frustrating. It's frustrating for our team, but reality is, as of three weeks ago, we have a new team, with new quarterback, new defensive line, new players, and new leaders."
The pieces are there though. Led by Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes. Just two guys quietly, and successfully, reshaping the identity of Houston Cougar football.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: This is homecoming week for Memphis, which makes the third week in a row that the Cougars have been a team's homecoming opponent....Beall is three rushing TDs away from tying the school record for rushing TDs in a season of 15....On holding the school record for career TDs, Beall had this to say: "To go out there and break records, that means you're being successful. I'm just happy to be able to put my team in good situations by being successful. Individual stats go along with a great team effort. And that's just been big for me."...Kick-off against Memphis is set for 6 p.m. And while the game is televised, you can forget about seeing it if you're on U-Verse or one of the dish networks since the game is being televised on Comcast Sports Southwest, which is, of course, available only on Comcast.