"We've got our work cut out for us," Houston Cougars head coach Kevin Sumlin said yesterday about the team's game with the SMU Mustangs this weekend. And though that's pretty much coaching cliché number one, Sumlin is hinting at the actual truth this time out.
The Mustangs, though 3-3 on the season, are 2-0 in Conference USA play, and are tied for first place in the West Division, the same division in which the 5-1 (1-1) Cougars reside. This is thus a game the Cougars need to win if their goal of winning the conference is to be achieved.
Sumlin likens SMU to the Coogs. Both teams are in their second year under a head coach with run-and-shoot pioneer and former Hawaii head coach June Jones heading up SMU.
"You can see how they have improved since he got there," Sumlin says of Jones and the Mustangs. And that's a worrisome thing for the Cougars as last year, despite SMU winning only one game, Houston still needed 21 fourth-quarter points to escape with the victory.
Sumlin seeks a team that, like his, is only now fully understanding the coach's system and implementing it with success. SMU is only a couple of plays from being 5-1 as they've lost two games in overtime, including last week when a SMU field goal attempt was blocked in overtime by Navy.
And like Mississippi State, SMU has a strong running game, led by junior running back Shawnbrey McNeal who has run for 500 yards this season. But being as this is a June Jones team, SMU also offers up a strong run-and-shoot passing game commanded by sophomore quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell who has thrown for 1,685 yards and 12 TDs.
Then there's the SMU defense, which is fourth in the nation in takeaways with 20, and second in the nation with 13 interceptions behind a 3-4 defense that Sumlin calls aggressive.
"This team is beyond dangerous. This is a good team," he says.
The Cougars are riding high off of last week's victory, but they are an injured team. The left side of the offensive line was completely new last week, and there were three new players, including two true freshmen, starting on defense last week. But in some ways, Sumlin sees this as a plus.
"I think it shows that we're starting to build some depth, and even though, it's young, I think these bunch of guys went into the game and played extremely hard," he said. "They didn't do everything exactly right all of the time, but they did enough for us to win. I think, I know, we're better for it."
But hopefully, the Cougars won't have to rely on the young players for the victory this week.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:
During yesterday's media luncheon, Sumlin commented on the surreal nature of last week's game which was played in a nearly empty Superdome. He thought there were more UH fans than Tulane fans in the stadium, and he felt the vast emptiness sucked the energy out of the team in the first half.
""There wasn't a lot of excitement," he said. "Our fans were great. The loudest people in the place. We had to tell the PA announcer to stop talking the whole time -- I think we had two penalties because of that, and I know [Tulane] did too, so it was kind of mutual thing to tell him to shut up. He was the loudest guy in the whole place."
For the first time, Sumlin legitimately addressed the team's rankings and the meaning of those rankings. He stated that while it was important to the fans, it did help with the recruiting. But, he concluded, "I'm more interested to see where we are in about a month-and-a-half, two months."
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Sumlin also addressed the team's kicking problems. While saying it was a shame that the kicking overshadowed a very good game by the rest of the special teams last week, he acknowledged that it is a problem. Right now, he's holding an open competition for the kicking spot, and he says that the guy who kicks off to start the game is the winner.
This is the team's first home game this month after playing three straight on the road.
Playing on the road "really doesn't affect the schedule until Friday, because you leave earlier. That's basically it," senior defensive back Carson Blackmon said about all of those games. "It definitely makes coming home -- you appreciate it more. The home games, the band, playing in front of your fans...it makes you appreciate it more."
This game is the school's 64th homecoming game. It will be aired on CBS College Sports, and kickoff is currently set for 6:34 p.m.