The Houston Cougars closed out Robertson Stadium in fine style on Saturday night. The Cougars got a season-closing 40-17 win over the Tulane Green Wave. The partially sold out crowd was happy. And fireworks soared high over the campus as soon as the final event in the history of the stadium came to a close.
This season didn't go the way the Houston Cougars wanted it to go. They had high hopes to start the season. They were going to win the conference. They were going to go to a bowl game. They were going to finish with another winning record. They were going to leave Conference USA and fly into the Big East.
That didn't happen. They didn't contend. They had a losing record. They're going to limp into the Big East -- if the Big East still exists next season. But for a few minutes on Saturday evening, things were as they should have been, the offense putting up points at a quick, breathtaking pace, the crowd roaring, the air raid sirens going off, and the Cougars went out on that high note they were so longing to end it on.
"A challenging season, some disappointments, but I'm proud of the way they did it this week for our seniors, for the pride they have in our program, for it being the last game in Robertson Stadium," head coach Tony Levine said. "What I saw out there this afternoon were some young men who were playing their final game in a Houston uniform make a bunch of plays to help us win, give us some leadership that we needed to finish the season with a victory."
The Cougars, behind senior quarterback Crawford Jones, making only his second start of the season, scored on their first three possessions and grabbed the 17-0 lead. Things settled down after that and Tulane attempted to crawl back into the game, and the score was only 27-17 as the game entered the fourth quarter. But the Cougar defense shut down the Tulane offense and the Houston offense put up 13 points to put the game out of reach.
Freshman running back Ryan Jackson came in during the second quarter for the injured Kenneth Farrow and ran off 136 yards on 16 carries for two touchdowns, including one 72-yard run. Senior receiver Ronnie Williams hauled in 10 passes from Jones for 73 yards and a touchdown, and Jones completed 25 of 46 passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns.
At times, especially in the first quarter, the offense resembled the high-octane machine led by Case Keenum in seasons past. But at other times, the Cougar offense more often resembled that ineffective, ineffectual offense seen so often this season in games against SMU, Tulsa, UCLA, and on and on and on.
The key difference this time out, when the offense worked, was that the team was actually able to execute the offense. That they cut down on mistakes.
"I just think we executed better [today than the rest of the season]," Levine said. "You look at some of the drives where we stalled, and it was an incomplete pass on first and 10 which now creates a second and long. It was a sack on first and 10, now we're second and 16. What you've seen all season, what you saw today is the game of football. Turnovers normally dictates who wins the game. How efficient you are on first down normally dictates your third-down percentage. We've had examples of that all year."
But whether it was just the execution, or whether the play calling was different, the offense, when it worked on Saturday night, was a thing of beauty. And the UH offense being a thing of beauty just hasn't been something seen too often this season, which is probably why the Cougars finished the season with a record of just 5-7.
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Now the season's over for the Cougars. It didn't play out like they wanted in August. They're not going to a bowl. They don't have a winning record. But for a few moments, they looked a bit like the team they were in the recent past.
Senior cornerback D.J. Hayden, who nearly died due to a freakish practice injury earlier this month, was able to participate in pregame Senior Day activities, riding out on a golf cart as his name was announced for the crowd, and he was surrounded on the field by his teammates....For this game, as a tribute to Hayden, the players elected to replace their names on their jerseys with Hayden's name.
Meanwhile, in El Paso, the Rice Owls (6-6) won their fourth straight game, defeating UTEP 33-24. With the win, the Owls earned bowl eligibility and are now just waiting to hear their bowl destination (it looks to be either the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth or the New Orleans Bowl.