See more pics of the Cougars game against Southern Miss in our slideshow.
It's easy to blame the dual distractions of the BCS and Kevin Sumlin's future when trying to explain the Houston Cougars' (12-1) 49-28 loss to the Southern Miss Golden Eagles (11-2) in the C-USA Title Game on Saturday. It's easy, but it's wrong.
It's easy to look at Southern Miss and wonder how it was that Coogs lost to a team that lost to UAB. It had to be the distractions. It had to be the fault of Kevin Sumlin
talking not talking talking not talking to Arizona State Texas A&M UCLA. It's easy, but it's wrong.
The Cougars lost for a simple reason. Southern Miss played a fantastic football game, taking a lead, keeping the Cougars off balance, and just flat out dominating the Houston offensive line, which took the running game out of the equation, which in turn harmed the passing game. Many teams have beat up on the UH offensive front this season, but the Cougars were always able, in those games, to find a way to make two or three big plays. Two or three plays that would put points on the board, cause separation and take away the physical advantage.
Then again, it's one thing to be able to make big plays when you're playing ECU or Rice or Georgia State. It's another thing to make big plays when you're playing, for the first time in the entire season, a ranked football team which, were it not for a big upset weeks earlier, would have also been in the BCS bowl discussion.
So blame Kevin Sumlin all you want. Bitch about the Aggies
having not having having not having discussions with Sumlin before the game. The Cougars didn't lose because of that. The Cougars lost because Southern Miss pushed the Cougars around the field. The Cougars lost because Southern Miss wanted this game, and because Southern Miss was pissed about being dissed by every form of media available.
"Everybody thought Houston was just going to walk away with this thing, and our guys obviously...had something to prove," Southern Miss head coach Larry Fedora said. "They were going to play with a chip on their shoulders. They wanted everybody to know that Southern Miss is a really good football team."
And yet. And yet. One Case Keenum over-throw here. One Tyron Carrier drop there. One Charles Sims slip here and maybe, just maybe, the Cougars still find a way to win the game.
For instance, on the second play of the game, Keenum had receiver Justin Johnson open on the right sideline. All Keenum had to do was loft the ball into Johnson's arms and Johnson's going all the way for the TD. But Keenum put just a touch too much on the ball and the pass was just inches past the outstretched hands of Johnson. Two plays later, the Cougars punted.
Then several drives later, with the score still 0-0, Keenum found Carrier wide open in the middle of the field and lofted the ball perfectly, the ball coming over Carrier's shoulder in stride, nothing between Carrier and the end zone, about 40 yards away. Only Carrier let the ball slip through his hands.
Perhaps the Cougars were too focused on the Sugar, Orange and Fiesta Bowl reps that were in attendance. Perhaps there was something wrong with the turf. Maybe it was the wind. But the Cougars never got in synch offensively. Sims slipped to the turf numerous times with no defenders within yards and tons of empty green space before him. Keenum had to run and dump passes and take sacks while receivers made wrong turns and ran wrong routes.
Then there was the Dandy Don Meredith moment, a blocked punt that was returned for the touchdown by Southern Miss's Furious Bradley, making the score 28-14. Fedora said they knew from film study that there'd be a gap in the UH punt-blocking scheme. And Bradley executed the block in the game just like he executed it in practice numerous times last week.
"That was the way the game was played, and Southern Miss had everything to do with that," Sumlin said. "They made the plays. They made the plays in special teams, created the score separation, and then played defense with soft coverage and got after us up front."
Kiss the BCS goodbye as the loss dropped the Coogs to number 19 in the BCS standings and 17 in the USA Today/Coaches Poll. And cancel those hotel reservations for New Orleans. Pack the car and prepare for the day trip to Dallas for the TicketCity Bowl and a game against Penn State (9-3, number 22 in the BCS and 23 in the USA Today/Coaches Poll. Southern Miss for its efforts ends up playing 7-5 Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve). It's quite a comedown for the Cougars. But all good things must eventually end. This good thing just ended a game sooner than expected.
MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: On Thursday, Arizona State supposedly made an offer to Kevin Sumlin, then it was discovered they hadn't even talked. During the game on Saturday, a story hit that the Aggies would be hiring Sumlin within 24 hours. And now the word, supposedly, is that UCLA is sending a rep to talk to Sumlin. Sumlin responded with the following after Saturday's game.
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"That is not true," Sumlin said of the Texas A&M story. "No. I said earlier this week, two weeks ago, that I wasn't going to talk to anybody, period, during the football season. I actually said that three weeks ago. Many of things that have been reported have now been found to be false already, so I've been consistent with that, and that's not the case."
"I haven't talked to anybody," he continued later. "I haven't said anything to anybody about that." (In a conference call late last night, Sumlin once again denied meeting with any schools, shooting down this ESPN story about UCLA. He also denied, in that phone call, once again, any contact with A&M, and claimed that he is not seeking any other jobs.)
When Sumlin was asked whether he thought all of the rumors affected the team's preparations during the week, Case Keenum angrily interjected: "None," he said. "There was none. We weren't affected at all."
Of course, it's still early in the week, and there's still a lot of time for things to change and talks to happen.