"As a team, I still don't think we've played our best game," Houston Cougars head coach Kevin Sumlin stated at yesterday's media luncheon. "It's still out there for us. I think we can be better."
The Cougars are 6-1 on the season, and if the team's best game is still out there waiting to be played, then the rest of Conference USA better be on notice, starting with this week's opponent, the 5-3 Southern Miss Golden Eagles.
The Cougars definitely didn't play their best game last Saturday against SMU, but Sumlin was encouraged by what he saw, primarily by the team's opportunistic defense, which is improving as the season goes on. And by opportunistic, Sumlin meant the defense's ability to force three SMU turnovers while holding the Mustangs to 0-10 on third down tries.
"We talked about opportunistic, and that's the definition of opportunistic," he said. "And when you're young on defense, I think it's important...that you be opportunistic."
And the Cougars have been this season. They are number seven in the nation in turnover ratio, which is somewhat surprising considering the team's pass-first type offense. But while they've forced numerous turnovers in the past several games, the Case Keenum-led offense has not suffered a turnover since the Mississippi State game.
Another thing that stands out about this year's Cougar team is their ability to make in-game adjustments. While the Texans were unable to handle the 49ers switching quarterbacks at the half last Sunday, the Cougars easily adjusted to SMU rotating two back-up QBs -- one who was actually being redshirted -- after an injury to the SMU starter. This was an adjustment, Sumlin said, that took the Cougars about five plays to figure out.
The offense also made a critical adjustment during the game as it became evident that the SMU defense was putting all of its efforts into taking away the Cougars' passing game. The move by offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen and Keenum was to take what SMU was giving them, which was the run.
"I think Dana did a good job," Sumlin said. "I think it's that we have the players to do that. I think that says a lot about our offensive line to be able to do that. Particularly a whole new left side, and two sophomores and a freshman running back. For us to develop as a team, it helps you to be able to do both, run and pass."
The Southern Miss team coming to Robertson Stadium is 5-3 on the season. All of its losses have been on the road, including very close defeats to Kansas and Louisville. Southern Miss also offers up one of C-USA's best defenses. They're number one in total defense, allowing an average of 313.6 yards per game, and they're number three in scoring defense, allowing only 20.6 points per game. Worse, they're number one in pass defense, allowing on average only 204.1 yards per game by the air, and their defense is number two on the rush, allowing 109.5 yards per game on the ground.
The Southern Miss offense, meanwhile, can't be dismissed. They're second to only the Cougars in C-USA in scoring offense, averaging 32.8 points per game, and they're also second to the Cougars in total offense, averaging 406.1 yards per game. And they're number two in rushing offense, averaging 194.6 yards per game on the ground.
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The Cougars won't have to be perfect to defeat Southern Miss. But they will have to continue being opportunistic and forcing the turnovers. And Sumlin compares the Southern Miss offense to Oklahoma State's when it comes to style of play and weapons, so the defense is going to have to continue with the speedy in-game adjustments that comes from playing against no-huddle offense.
As for the Cougar offense, receiver Tyron Carrier stresses the team will have to do what it did last week: take what the defense gives them. "If they're going to give us the pass, of course we're going to go with the that because that's what we do best. If they give us the run, we've got three backs back there who can tote the ball."
Kickoff for Saturday's game is set for 12:04 p.m., and the game will be televised on Comcast Sports Southwest....Last week's C-USA special-teams player of the week was Houston's Tyron Carrier, who opened up the second half with a spectacular 92-yard kick return for a touchdown. His first concern was fielding the ball properly, then he just waited for his blockers to get set. "I knew that I was going to score" once that happened, he said. "We had that [type of kick return] planned the whole week."