The Houston Cougars came out in front of a nearly non-existent Superdome crowd on Saturday and got business done, defeating Tulane 44-16.
Of course, it wasn't easy.
At least for a half, as the Cougars battled a slow start and poor kicking to lead at only 9-6 after the first half. But the Case Keenum-led offense came out in the second half and put up 20 points in the third quarter and 15 points in the fourth quarter to get the victory and to improve their season record to 5-1 and their Conference USA record to 1-1.
So what appeared to be a potential repeat of the UTEP loss turned into a somewhat triumphant victory. Somewhat triumphant, that is, because the victory exposed many problems that the Cougars still can't seem to get a handle on.
The defense surrendered 437 yards, and though the Cougars were able to stop Tulane from scoring, a better offense might have been able to take advantage of the Cougars and make the game competitive.
Then there was the kicking, as Ben Bell missed a field goal and an extra point in the first half before being replaced by Jordan Mannisto, the man he replaced last week. Mannisto was not much of an improvement as he, too, struggled with his extra points throughout the second half.
Many things, however, went right for the team. The Cougar offense was seven for eight in the red zone, a place where, in several games this season, they have struggled mightily. Keenum was in command most of the game, completing 30 of 43 passes for 334 yards and two touchdowns.
Keenum even received some attention during the Florida/Arkansas game on CBS as commentator Gary Danielson dissed Keenum's chances of winning the Heisman -- I put that under the "any national network exposure is good national network exposure" category.
The good news continued yesterday as the national rankings slowly came trickling out. The Cougars moved up to 16 in the AP poll and 17 in the Coaches poll. And for the first time in the history of the BCS poll, the Cougars were ranked, earning the 17th spot.
One can't help but wonder, however, about what might have been had the team been able to defeat UTEP three weeks ago. While it's doubtful that the Cougars would have been ranked as high in the BCS as number-four Boise State or number-eight TCU, it's still possible that an undefeated Cougar team could have been pushing those two schools for a high ranking among the non-automatic qualifying BCS schools.
But while it's nice to finally be getting some national respect, however fleeting it might be, there's only one thing that is going to start getting the school some local respect. And it's this. If Cougar fans want the likes of Richard Justice and John Lopez to stop mocking and dismissing the school, then the fans have to show up for games that don't involve schools from a major conference.
There are supposedly 5,000 seats remaining for this week's game against SMU. And if not for 6,000 some-odd Texas Tech fans, the Tech game would not have sold out. But until Robertson Stadium is sold out on a consistent basis, the local media is not going to take the team or its fans seriously -- well, I will, but I'm an alum and I attended games even before getting this gig.
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Anything less than a sellout this weekend is going to be an embarrassment to the school and the team, and it's just going to give the others a chance to keep on about the greatness of UT and the UT fans, and they'll go on about how if the fans can't be bothered to show up for the games, then why should they be bothered to give more coverage than the Longhorns.
The national people are beginning to pay attention to the team after years of being dismissed as a joke. But unlike TCU and Boise State, which have built up good will with the voters, the Cougars can't afford another loss to a team like UTEP, which is why the Tulane win was important and which is why the players will have to concentrate on SMU this week.
None of that's going to matter, though, if the fans don't start showing up and offering up support. Because if the Cougar fans want respect, then they have to start acting like fans and selling out games like SMU and Southern Mississippi.
Otherwise, expect the Richard Justice mocking to continue.