In retrospect, what happened to the Houston Cougars on Saturday night in El Paso shouldn't have been that much of a surprise.
Yes, the team was coming off of a last-minute win against Texas Tech. And yes, UTEP was 1-3 and coming off a humiliating defeat to the Texas Longhorns.
But the precedent between UTEP and UH was there, in that just last season UTEP jumped out to the 28-9 halftime lead before the Cougars stormed back for the win
This year's Cougars, however, were supposed to be different than last season's Cougars. And this season's Cougars were different.
This year, the score was tied 17-17 at the half before the UH defense lost the ability to make a tackle, allowing UTEP to score forty-one second-half points on the way to the 58-41 upset of the then-ranked number-12 Cougars.
The Cougars stormed out to the early 10-0 lead, and midway through the first quarter, it looked as if they were going to cruise to the early victory. But then the Cougars started to self-destruct.
And it's this self-destruction that should not be surprising because the elements that caused the self-destruction have been visible in all of the Cougars' games this season. Those elements namely being an inability to stop the run and a problem with capitalizing on scoring opportunities.
These elements almost killed the Cougars against Texas Tech, but the Red Raiders bafflingly stopped running the football, and when it counted, the Cougars found a way to capitalize.
The downfall started late in the first quarter when the Cougars were unable to capitalize on a first-and-goal and failed to score as UTEP stopped a UH attempt to score on fourth-and-goal at the one-yard line. After that point, UTEP outscored the Coogs 17-7 in the first half, and Cougars limped to the locker room.
"We had our opportunities early in the game when were trading [scores]," coach Kevin Sumlin said after the game, in a press conference covered by radio. "We scored on the opening possession, and were trading points, and we went for it on fourth down and got stopped. That changed the game a little bit. And we had the ball on the one-yard line a couple of times and didn't score touchdowns."
The Cougars had three first-half trips inside the UTEP 15-yard line and were able to come away with only three points. So what should have been a Cougar runaway was instead a game in which the Coogs were lucky to be tied.
Then came the third quarter in which UTEP outscored the Cougars 20-7. Nothing the Cougars did in the third quarter went right, as UTEP did what Texas Tech failed to do, in that UTEP kept running the football and just appeared to get into the minds of the Cougars.
UH made several half-hearted attempts to get back into the game in the fourth period, scoring 21 points. But each time the Cougars scored, UTEP came back out and put points on the board.
"As I told the team afterwards, they outplayed us," Sumlin said. "They deserved to win. We did not match their intensity."
So in retrospect, the Cougars problems stopping the run and scoring should have been more evident. But while Mike Leach and Texas Tech didn't seek to exploit these problems, Mike Price and UTEP did.
Time and time and time and time and time again.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
So instead of being undefeated, highly-ranked, and cruising to a bowl game, the Cougars now have to wonder if other teams are going to be able to exploit these problems while having to find some way to come back and win Conference USA.
"We've just got to get back together," Sumlin said, "put this one behind us, figure out what's going wrong, and get ready for next week because we've got a bunch of games to go."
And that bunch of games stars on Saturday when the 3-1 Cougars go on the road to battle the 2-3 Mississippi State Bulldogs of the SEC.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Saturday's game against Mississippi State will be played at 11:30 a.m., and it will be televised on ESPNU....UTEP had more points on Saturday night (58) than it did in total yards (53) for the entire game against Texas the week before....UTEP had only 10 running touchdowns for all of last season, but they had five rushing TDs on Saturday....UTEP running back Donald Buckram ran 32 times for 262 yards and four TDs.....Cougar QB Case Keenum threw five TD passes. This was his 20th-straight game with a TD pass. Keenum finished the game 51 for 76 for 536 yards, all career highs....The Cougars, not surprisingly, fell out of the AP and Coaches rankings.