One could sense things were going to go wrong for the Houston Cougars from the very first. On their second offense play, David Piland hit a streaking Justin Johnson down the middle of the field.
Normally, when a Cougar receiver gets the ball in the middle of the field and he's wide open, he's going to score. But Johnson was caught from behind and dragged to the turf at the Southern Miss 17-yard line. The Cougars were still in great position to get a touchdown, only the offense stalled and they had to settle for a 37-yard Matt Hogan field goal.
The Cougars had the 3-0 lead to start the game. They would never lead again as the Southern Miss Golden Eagles dominated the Cougars to the tune of a 59-41 victory.
The problem for the Cougars wasn't so much the offense -- though the inability of the running game to get going really hurt -- as it was the defense. The Cougar defense kept the high-powered Tulsa offense contained, kind of, last week as Tulsa put up only 28 points despite five Piland interceptions. But the defense was utterly unable to stop Southern Miss.
That the Cougars were even in the game at the half was perhaps the most amazing part of the game. With the score 24-13 and time running out on the clock, Southern Miss tried to pull off a 59-yard field goal. But Cougars head coach Kevin Sumlin was able to call a timeout just a split second before the ball was snapped; thus, the made kick was disallowed.
Southern Miss then tried the kick again, only to have it blocked. Receiver/kick returner Tyron Carrier was playing deep, and he picked up the bouncing ball and ran it back 89-yards for the touchdown, making the score 24-20. The Cougars wasted that momentum though as the defense allowed Southern Miss to keep the ball for 11:39 in the third quarter as they put the game out of reach.
"We couldn't get them off the field," Sumlin told 790 sideline reporter Chuck Brown after the game. "We couldn't get them stopped. We couldn't generate anything offensively in the third quarter. We had some momentum going into the locker room at halftime after the big play, then turnaround, we just couldn't get off the field on defense and couldn't punch it in."
Southern Miss put up 642 total yards on the UH defense, and it appeared that they could have put up even more yards had they really been trying, so inept were the Cougars attempts at tackling. The Golden Eagles ground out 349 rushing yards while compiling 293 passing yards. And most of the tackles, when the tackles were made, were made in the defensive backfield, often after the runner or receiver had broken through or eluded several other tackling attempts.
"We were not physical enough tonight to win this ball game," Sumlin said.
Southern Miss QB Austin Davis continued a disturbing trend, killing the Cougars not only with his passing abilities, but with his ability to run the football. He complete 24 passes for 293 yards and two touchdowns, and he tacked on an additional four touchdowns and 123 yards while rushing the ball. And running back Kendrick Hardy rushed 26 times for 206 yards and two touchdowns.
The Cougars offense didn't have much luck either against the Southern Miss defense, ranked as the number two total defense in C-USA and as C-USA's number one ranked run defense held the Cougars to only 24 rushing yards while keeping Piland under constant pressure. And if anything, Southern Miss further exposed the Cougars as a team lacking a strong physical presence on either the offensive or defensive lines.
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The Cougars are now 5-6 for the season, with just one game remaining, a visit to Lubbock to take on Texas Tech on Saturday night. The Cougars need the win in this game for two reasons: to not have a losing season, and to gain bowl eligibility. But this week won't be an easy one.
"It's tough," Sumlin said. "We ought to be able to get back in here - what we have is us. We're going to show up here Monday, ready to work, with a plan and go out to Lubbock and win."
But the Cougars always have a plan. And they're always ready to work. There are times though, as have been shown time and time again this year, where plans and hard work just aren't always enough.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES: Hard as it is to believe, seeing as Brett Favre is a Southern Miss alum, but David Piland's 467 passing yards were the most ever in the history of M.M. Roberts Stadium....Piland has thrown a TD in seven straight games....Tyron Carrier has caught a pass in 38 straight games....Kierrie Johnson's touchdown catch in the first quarter was his sixth TD catch of the season, and the 12th of his college career....Patrick Edwards now has five career games of 100-plus receiving yards.