Are you a high school football player in the state of Texas? Do you want to play for the best? Do you want to play big bowl games and go up agains the best competition? Then Houston Cougars head coach Tom Herman has a simple message for you. Come to the University of Houston.
It’s a pitch he made before the season. It’s a pitch he’s made during the season. But after today’s dominating 38-24 win by the Cougars over the Florida State Seminoles, there can no longer be any doubt that the Cougars are now not only the best college football team in the state of Texas, but are now also one of the best college football teams in the United States.
Said UH head coach Tom Herman after Thursday's win: “I think I’d be remiss that if I didn’t mention, or at least implore the recruits out there and the high school football players, that if you want to win championships and you want to win New Year’s Six bowl games, and win 13 games and kiss trophies, and get really big rings and get a lot of nice things... that you can certainly do it at one of the finest institutions in the country, and in my opinion, the greatest city in America.”
And Herman couldn't have asked for a better recruiting pitch than the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Before a crowd of 71,000 inside the Georgia Dome (and many more watching on ESPN), the Cougars went out and proved that this was not the team of years past. That this wasn’t a finesse team depending on a spread offense. The Cougars went out on the big stage, in one of the biggest football games of the season, and put a beating on one of the best teams in the country.
The Cougars physically dominated Florida State. The defensive unit shut down a Florida State offense that featured Dalvin Cook, one of the best running backs in college football. It held FSU to negative 15 yards of offense in the second quarter, and held Cook to a total of just 33 rushing yards for the entire game (the team finished with just 16 yards rushing for the game). It kept the Florida State offense on its heels with the FSU quarterbacks constantly under pressure and forcing a FSU team that had committed just 10 turnovers for the entire season to turn it over five times in a single game.
“We just didn’t block them,” FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said. “It was nothing that we haven’t never seen. They just beat us on blocks. …They were able to tackle well.”
The Cougar offense pulled out of all the stops. Quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. rushed for 81 yards and two touchdowns while throwing for 238 yards and a TD. Receiver Demarcus Ayers pulled in nine passes for 82 yards and threw his own TD pass off a trick play that put the Cougars up 14-3 midway through the second quarter and that announced to the crowd that the Cougars were indeed serious about winning this thing.
“It’s a play we’ve been working on all year,” Ayers said of his 20-yard pass to a wide open Chance Allen standing all alone in the end zone. “It was designed to go to Greg Ward. Chance rolled wide open. The rule is to run [if it breaks down], but since Chance was open, I threw it up there and it just happened.”
The win was without doubt the biggest one for the Cougars since the late 1970s when the team was a newcomer to the Southwest Conference, defeating Maryland and Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl (and losing to Notre Dame in one of those great miraculous comeback things that Joe Montana did all so well). More than any single win since then, this victory means that this team not only belongs on the big stage but is already there. It’s not a team that wilts under the big lights; rather, it seems, the Cougars are a team that embraces pressure.
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“It’s back,” Herman said about the Cougars, the school and the UH fanbase. “We were here before. We went a little dormant. Yeah, the sky is the limit.”
Indeed, Herman is on a mission. His players are on a mission. This isn’t a spread-offense, high-scoring team. This isn’t a team that needs every play to be perfect. This is a team that knows it’s better than everyone else and, perhaps more important, is itching to prove it’s better than everyone else.
“I think the validation of just kind of the way we go about our business has really been neat to feel and it’s palpable in the city,” Herman said. “It’s palpable on our campus that we have a new sense of pride in this great university and this great football program, and it’s because the players have invested so much in it.”
So ends the 2015 Houston Cougar football season. The Cougars went 13-1. The team won a conference title. It’s the highest-ranked non-major conference school in the country, and today it went out and dominated the big boys of Florida State, and it rings in the new year as the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl champions.