Stephen Pinchback/Houston Athletics Communications Houston's Zach McMillian returns an interception as Trevon Stewart looks for someone to block
The Cougars defeated the SMU Ponies (5-6) by a 34-0 score on Friday afternoon. That was the first time that a June Jones-coached college team had ever been shutout. It was also the first time the Cougars had shutout the opposition in a conference game since the glory days of Jack Pardee on December 2, 1989. The Owls then went out and defeated the Tulane Green Wave (7-5) on Saturday evening, holding Tulane to a total of 26 rushing yards and 123 total offensive yards for the game while not giving up a first down until the end of the third quarter.
The turnarounds of the two defenses have been led, in large part, by the defensive coordinators. David Gibbs is in his first year on the job at UH, and Chris Thurmond's in his second year at Rice. Both coordinators have been rewarded with nominations for the Broyles Award which is given each year to the country's top college assistant coach.
Cougar head coach Tony Levine and Owls head coach David Bailiff have been full of praise for their assistants and their defensive units all season. But it's more than just coaching praise that proves their worth. The players talk of changed philosophies, changed attitudes. The stats are superlative for both teams. And both units have switched things around, taking the pressure off offenses that haven't always been what they were in the past.
THE HOUSTON TURNAROUND
The Cougars defense has been disarray since the departure of Jack Pardee way back in the day. The school's often relied on high-power offenses to make up for the poor defense, and head coach after head coach has blown through one defensive coordinator and one defensive philosophy after another. But after last year's 5-7 season, Levine went about changing the culture. His first step being the addition of Gibbs to his staff and going with Gibbs' decision to simplify.
"Simplifying our defensive package allows us more time to work on tackling, to work on the fundamentals, to work on creating turnovers, and you've seen the great combination this season of everything I just talked about," Levine said. "We've simplified, we've stressed techniques and fundamentals, and the results to me have been very evident."
UH forced four turnovers against SMU, once again winning the turnover battle. There were three interceptions and a fumble recovery, and as has often been the case, the turnovers came at opportune times, stopping drives. Eric Eiland's fumble recovery and 62-yard return the SMU one-yard line at the end of the first half stopped SMU's best scoring drive of the day, and it set up a touchdown on the next play that put UH up 24-0 and effectively ended the game.
"That's been a common theme for our entire team this season and specifically defensively," Levine said. "Our guys have been flying around, they've been taking a lot of pride in playing good defense. The turnovers, that's a habit and second nature for our young men, and something they're taking pride in."
The Cougars now get to wait a few weeks before they play again. Now they wait to find out what bowl game they'll be heading to, with the hopes to show a national offense that the Cougar defense is now more lethal than the offense. OWLS LEANING ON THE DEFENSE
Rice's victory over Tulane gave the team the C-USA West Division Championship. It wasn't an easy victory. The offense struggled throughout the game, sometimes seeming to fire on all cylinders, but more often than not backfiring like an old Ford Pinto. The Owls led 17-3 to the half, but if not for the defense holding Tulane to six three-and-outs and just 10 yards of offense on 19 plays, the Owls could've easily been in trouble (Tulane's three points came after a Rice fumble deep in its own territory with Tulane kicking the field goal after three plays.)
"It's no secret we've leaned on our defense the entire year," Rice QB Taylor McHargue said. "They've played great defense, forced turnovers."
And when the Owls needed it, they turned in their biggest performance of the season. But the performance has been several seasons coming, dating back to Thurmond's hiring and his work on changing the culture.
The players say he's changed the team's mentality. That he's a fantastic teacher that cares about them as people and not just as players. They call him a leader and a Renaissance man. But more, they talk about the trust he has in them, and his trust in them doing their jobs and running his defense.
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"Everybody does their jobs," says cornerback Phillip Gaines. "Nobody tries to freelance. Nobody tried to go outside the system. I think that's why we excel so much."
And that's allowed the Owls to climb to the nation's 19th ranked defense. A level not seen by the Owls in a long, long time.
"We said it before the year that we knew how good they were going to be," McHargue said Saturday night, "and they haven't disappointed all season."
The Owls have no spare time to celebrate their defensive prowess, or to enjoy the West Division title. They're playing Marshall on Saturday morning with another of the season's goals in sights, winning the conference title. And if that happens, it'll more than likely be due to the outstanding defense.