Many times, when sports teams must deal with devastating injuries, they rise to the occasion. They might not get the win, but the game is closer than it should be.
Then there are the Houston Cougars.
The Cougars dealt with the tragic, freakish loss of cornerback D.J. Hayden much as if they were Denzel Washington in Flight. They looked like they got drunk, did a few lines of coke, then tried to fly an airplane. Only instead of becoming heroes and landing a crippled plane with little loss of life, they crashed into Robertson Stadium and killed the 25,827 fans unfortunately in attendance.
OK, maybe that's an exaggeration. But if you were at Robertson Stadium on Saturday night, watching the Cougars lose to Tulsa 41-7 in clearly their worst game of the season in a season full of bad football games, you probably won't think that's much of an exaggeration.
It's hard to put into words just how pathetic Saturday's game was. The offense never settled into any kind of rhythm, unless running three plays and punting is considered a rhythm. Defensively, it's hard to believe that Hayden's presence would have made much of a difference. Not when Tulsa's running backs were seemingly dragging four or five UH defenders with them on every run from scrimmage while still picking up positive yardage.
"It was a frustrating night," head coach Tony Levine said. "Coming out of the first quarter, it was 3-0. They don't make mistakes. We turned the ball over four times. Tulsa is probably the most complete football team we've played this season in all three phases."
The game didn't start out as a disaster in the making. The score was only 3-0 Tulsa after the one quarter, and that field goal came with just six seconds left. Then the Cougars went for it on fourth-and-two at their 47 yard line early in the, and they failed to convert. Tulsa quickly went 53 yards to make it 10-0, then on their next drive took the ball 90 yards to make it 17-0.
Tulsa got seven more points on their opening drive of the second half, but was mostly quiet the rest of the quarter. But the more the Cougars struggled on offense, the more confident Tulsa grew, and the Golden Hurricane put up 17-0 fourth quarter points, including a 22-yard touchdown return of a Crawford Jones interception.
"We made mistakes, got behind in the second quarter, couldn't catch up," Levine said. "I don't attribute what happened in the game to what we've been through this week." It's possible that Hayden's injury might have adversely affected the team this week, but the Cougars have been on a downward spiral since the season started, and what happened on Saturday night, the team bottoming out, was bound to happen this season. Only the bottoming out came in a game that took nearly four hours to play - it seemed like eight hours - and the bottoming out was just the team reaching the lowest depths of a descent that started when they lost to Texas State in game one.
The offense would actually start a decent drive, but commit a turnover. Or there would be a bad penalty. Or the defense wouldn't make a tackle or would leave a receiver uncovered. This game was the total team breakdown of total team breakdowns. And D.J. Hayden or no D.J. Hayden, Charles Sims or no Charles Sims, it's really hard to believe the result would have been any different.
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The Cougars can "resign" offensive coordinators. They can shuffle the deck chairs on defense and offense. They can talk about it being a team game and lack of consistency. But no matter what, there's no way to logically explain how a team that went 13-1 last season is now 4-6 the next season and looking more like the Cougars that played under Dana Dimel than the Cougars that played under Kevin Sumlin.
"I told them we have two games left and I told them if there's ever been a definition of having your back against the wall, this is it," Levine said. "We've got to win the next two to extend our season and go somewhere in December for a week. It starts with Marshall [the next opponent]. Our preparation and focus this week has to be better than it's been all season. I told them we cannot win the conference championship any longer. Our focus is now on extending our season."
Tulsa is a good football team (8-2). They're perhaps the most complete team in C-USA. And Tulsa went out there and won the football game on Saturday night. But this is still a Tulsa team that lost to Arkansas and nearly lost to Rice.
The Cougars still have a chance to extend their season, to play a bottom-tier bowl game in December. But if they keep playing like they did on Saturday night, is that a game that anybody really, truly, wants to see them play?