About an inch was all that separated the Houston Cougars from disaster last night. That’s just about how short Tulsa’s Jesse Brubaker was from getting the ball over the goal line with no time on the clock. But it’s not how a team gets the win that matters — it’s whether the team gets the win.
Last night, before a TDECU Stadium crowd of 38,221, the Houston Cougars (6-1) got the 38-31 win. Were the Cougars lucky? Hell yes. Did Tulsa make the Cougars defense look bad at times? Many, many times. Did the Cougars commit stupid penalty after stupid penalty? You bet. Did the offense hurt itself with turnovers? Yes, yes it did.
But the only thing that matters is that Houston got the win over Tulsa (4-2), keeping alive the Cougars's chances of winning the American Athletic Conference.
“That was fun, huh?” asked head coach Tom Herman after the game. Though fun might not be the word that Cougar fans would choose to employ.
It wasn’t a pretty win. It wasn’t a dominating win. It sure wasn’t an easy win. But on a night when the Cougars struggled in just about every aspect of the game, Houston still found a way to make the plays it needed to.
The Cougars had dominated just about every other opponent this season, whether that team be lowly Lamar or mighty Oklahoma. In all of those games Houston generally did whatever it wanted on offense while finding a way to stop the opposing offenses with ease. But the Cougars looked discombobulated while losing to Navy last week, and Saturday night there were long stretches of play where neither the offensive nor the defensive units appeared to be operating with that same sense of purpose and confidence that had been so evident earlier in the season.
The Cougars gave up 459 yards to Tulsa, 365 of those coming through the air. UH was penalized 10 times for 104 yards. Houston let the Golden Hurricane convert on 14 of 20 of third down plays and gave up an average of 5.3 yards per Tulsa offensive play while giving 27 Tulsa first downs. The Coogs meanwhile accumulated 522 yards on offense, yet turned the ball over three times. And it was only when quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. took over and started running the ball himself (142 yards on 25 rushes) that the UH offense appeared to be in synch.
Herman put it best when he said that Houston can no longer expect to beat everybody. From here on out, there will be no coasting.
“I told our guys,” Herman said, “you’re going to get their best shot. You’ve earned that. Everybody on your schedule is going to play you with their A-game. And we’ve got to understand that, and understand that even when we’re up 17-3 we can’t take our foot up off of the gas because teams are not going to go away lightly, they’re going to keep swinging.”
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Keep swinging Tulsa did. Twice Houston had 14-point leads, including a 17-3 lead late in the second quarter (the game was tied 17-17 at the half) and 31-17 in the fourth quarter (before Tulsa scored 14 points in a four-minute span to tie with 3:31 left in the game). And Tulsa was in prime position to win the game before UH safety Garrett Davis forced a scrambling Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans to fumble the ball with 1:21 on the clock. The fumble was recovered by linebacker Emeke Egbule, and Egbule rumbled 24 yards for the touchdown that proved to be the margin of victory.
“I’m really excited for our guys,” Herman said. “Really excited that they could take a punch in the face, so to speak, and respond. It’s another example of winning is really, really hard, and you should never, ever, ever take winning for granted. I’m excited as heck. We’re going to celebrate the heck out of this one. Celebrate the heck out of it.”
There’s been a ton of pressure on the Cougars this season. Pressure to beat Oklahoma. Pressure to be perfect, to make the playoffs. To prove that the school belongs in the Big 12. Maybe by Monday afternoon the Cougars will learn the answer to whether it’s going to join the Big 12, but the pressure is not off this team, even with the shot for perfection gone and the chance for the playoffs nearly extinct. There’s still the pressure for the conference title, still a chance for one of the major bowl games.
So maybe it’s okay that the Cougars take a night to celebrate a win in a game that could easily have been lost. Because this is a game, after all, and games are supposed to be fun. Just as long as that celebration is quickly put aside because the Cougars have another game to play on Saturday. And Houston better believe that SMU is going to give its best effort to shutting down the Cougars.