The Houston Cougars spoke about the importance of having a good game on Saturday. Not only would a victory over Texas Tech guarantee a bowl game for the Coogs, but it would allow the seniors to go out on a high note.
So of course, in a season that has turned into a disaster for the team, one of the team's senior leaders, receiver James Cleveland, wouldn't even make the trip to Lubbock because he was suspended for a violation of team rules.
Not that it really mattered for the Cougars. They lost to Texas Tech 35-20, and they would have lost even if Cleveland had decided to follow the team rules. It didn't matter because Cleveland doesn't play defense, and it was the defense, once again, that ultimately doomed the Cougars since it was the defense that failed to get the Red Raiders off of the field time and time again.
The Cougars actually had the lead at one point in the first quarter, but the defense couldn't keep Texas Tech offense of the field. The Cougar offense couldn't stay on the field, and the Cougars were just plain outplayed, outclassed, and out-coached as they finished the season on a four-game losing streak, going 5-7 in a season in which they were supposed to win Conference USA and reach a mid-tier bowl.
"I thought that we put ourselves in some situations," head coach Kevin Sumlin said after the game to sideline reporter Chuck Brown. "We weren't able to run the ball in the situations when we got it close, when we got it down there and punch it in."
The Cougar offense actually out-gained the Tech offense, 585 yards to 488 yards, but the Cougar offense was 1-for-15 on third down, when it counted. And the Cougars actually won the time of possession battle, but that spoke more to the efficiency of the Texas Tech offense and awfulness of the Cougar defense than it did to the success of the Houston offense. The ground game was only able to grind out 144 yards as the Cougar offensive line was, once again, no match for a bigger, more talented defensive line.
So the season ends on a loss, and the season ends without the bowl game. The fans and players might be disappointed by the lack of the bowl game, but Sumlin, as he made clear in statements last week, is disappointed that the team's not going to be getting that extra practice time that comes from making a bowl game.
But having seen the Cougars time and time again this past season, the question really needs to be asked: what good would more practice do?
Is more practice for a bowl game going to finally help the defense learn how to tackle? Is more practice going into next season going to help the secondary suddenly learn how to cover receivers? Is extra practice going to make the Cougars as big and physical and athletic on the offensive and defensive lines as many of the teams that kicked their ass this season?
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As long as the Cougar are beaten up time and time again on the front lines, as long as the defense continues to miss tackle after tackle or leave receivers open, it's not going to matter how many practices the Cougars have, or who plays at quarterback. Because as long as that happens, the Cougars will continue to lose games to teams that are more physical than them or who feature mobile quarterbacks and talented wideouts.
Sumlin said after the game that this season has been a learning experience for the team. Maybe it's a learning experience that the team and coaches needed. Case Keenum was a fantastic quarterback, and he had the ability to cover up a lot of problems with the team -- the Cougars would have lost several more games than they did last year were it not for Keenum's ability to run the offense with a skill and at tempo that nobody else could -- but they had to live without him most of this year and perhaps the lesson was finally learned that it doesn't matter what the skill players can do if the big guys aren't big enough or talented enough to get the job done.
But whether or not that lesson was actually learned won't be known until next season. And right now, next season is a long, long way away.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Patrick Edwards caught 10 passes for 177 yards on Saturday. He finished the season with 1,107 receiving yards, making this his second straight season with 1,000-plus receiving yards. This was also his fifth straight 100-plus yard receiving game....Tyron Carrier finished with eight catches for 95 yards a touchdown. He now sits in second place for all-time all-purpose yards at UH, and he is 53 yards away from moving into fifth place....This was the second time this season that James Cleveland had been suspended for violation of team rules.