TDECU Stadium was lifeless on Saturday morning. Perhaps it was the 11:00 kickoff (originally scheduled to kick-off at 2:00 and moved up by the threat of bad weather). Maybe it was the grey, dismal, overcast sky. Maybe it was the stadium that looked to be two-thirds empty. Maybe it was just that the uninspiring Houston Cougars were hosting a two-win Tulsa Golden Hurricane team. Whatever the cause, the quiet atmosphere was not aided by the Cougars struggling to defeat Tulsa 38-28.
The Cougars (6-4) secured a bowl berth with the win, but there didn't appear to be much joy afterwards with the thought. Head coach Tony Levine was more thrilled by the idea of more practice for his young players than he was with his team going to a bowl. The players were more concerned with hopefully improving the bowl game for which they'll be practicing. And seeing how the team struggled to put away an awful (2-9) Tulsa team, the concern should be less on bowl games and more about not losing to a winless SMU team on Friday.
"In the past seven years that I've been here, we averaged 10 freshmen [with playing time] every year," Levine said. "This year we're playing four. What that tells you is that we're starting to get the depth that we need, and by extending our season and playing into the end of December or early January, you get 15-18 more practice opportunities for these young guys."
The attitude down the road on South Main is different. The Rice Owls (7-4) defeated the UTEP Miners (6-5) 31-13 on a dreary, miserable Friday night at Rice Stadium. The first half of the game was a bit of a bore, a scoreless first quarter during which the Owls gained five yards on offense turning into a high-scoring second half in which the Owls exerted their will on offense and defense.
The win guaranteed the third straight wining season for the Owls, and it's the first time in school history that the Owls have had three straight seasons with at least seven wins. It was also the final home game for a group of Rice players who have helped lead the Owls from the depths of awfulness to a winning program.
"It took four quarters, but we finally pulled away [from UTEP]," head coach David Bailiff said. "This senior class, it's the last home game, it's an emotional locker room, last time they get to wear that blue Rice Owls jersey at home. It is an emotional time when they start taking those jerseys off and begin reflecting about their four or five years here." Watching the Cougars play a football game has become like how it used to be watching Rice play football, wondering how a team with seemingly more talented players than the opposition finds a way to lose winnable game after winnable game. On Saturday, the Cougars struggled because the defense, the UH strength for most of the season, surrendered 28 points and 416 yards to a team that's beaten only Tulane and winless SMU this season. Tulsa running back Zack Langer constantly slashed through the defensive front, rushing for 124 yards and a touchdown.
Levine noted that the play of his defense was uncharacteristic, but the offense's play wasn't much different. The running game turned its best performance of the season -- Kenneth Farrow rushed for 116 yards and four TD -- but way too often the play-calling was safe and unimaginative, playing not to lose rather than playing to win. The Cougars jetted off to a 14-0 lead, scoring on the opening two drives, yet were tired 28-28 with just over three minutes left in the game as the offense took no chances and waited for the defense to force turnovers.
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"When you look at this game, it felt like we started fast and finished fast," Levine said. "Throughout the course of the game we had some momentum swings and Tulsa made some plays along the way to get the ball in the end zone -- and that kept the game close."
After the scoreless first quarter, the Rice/UTEP game was never close. The Owls took a 10-3 lead to the half, and a 24-13 lead into the fourth quarter. The vaunted UTEP ground attack, which was averaging about 225 yards a game, was shut down by the Rice defense, accumulating only 53 yards -- only eight rushing yards total after the first quarter -- as the Owls forced UTEP to do what it didn't want to do, pass the ball. And once Rice found its rhythm on offense, the win was guaranteed.
The Owls end the regular season on Saturday when they travel to Louisiana to face 7-4 Louisiana Tech. The winner of this game will then face Marshall in the C-USA Title game next week. The Owls struggled against Marshall several weeks ago, losing 41-14 in a game where the Owls couldn't get anything to work. But it's a match-up the Owls will again gladly play, if that is, they can get past the Bulldogs.
The Cougars travel to Dallas for the Friday game against SMU (0-10) before ending the season next week against Cincinnati (7-3). UH is bowl-eligible for a second straight season, but it's not the bowl game that's important, it's the practice time.