The Houston Cougars did their best impersonation of the Houston Texans on Saturday. They dominated the first half, playing a fantastic two quarters that masterfully mixed their passing and running games. Case Keenum showed zero aftereffects from his ACL injury, and the offense clicked as it hasn't since the 2009 season.
The UCLA Bruins were the bigger, more physical team. Just like last season. But it was the Cougars who knocked out a starting QB in the first half as UCLA's Kevin Prince left the game early in the second quarter after suffering what appeared to be a concussion -- UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel had said earlier in the week that he was going to play both of his QBs, however. And though UCLA appeared to be able to run the ball at will, it just didn't seem to matter. Especially after the Cougars scored two touchdowns in the final 2:49 of the half to take what appeared to be an insurmountable 31-14 lead.
But just as the Texans have shown an inability time after time to play a complete game, so too have the Cougars. And after UCLA held onto the ball for 11:16 of the third quarter, scoring 14 points, and working their will on a Cougar defense that often found itself getting burned on big third down plays, that Cougar lead was only 31-28.
The defense did come through when needed, though, holding UCLA to no points after the Bruins ran off a 15-play, 65-yard drive that took 7:02 off of the fourth quarter clock, but which resulted in a missed Bruins field goal. A missed field goal that became even bigger when UCLA scored a touchdown with 1:19 left in the game to make the score 38-34 UH. The UH special teams then decided not to leave things up to the defense, as they blocked the PAT, then saw sophomore receiver Shane Ros recover UCLA's onside kick.
"I think Coach [Tony] Levine is the best special teams coach in the country," Keenum said. "He gets those guys going. Their biggest plays it seems like, the block, and catching the onside kick, Shane Ros there, I gave him a big hug after that, too. They did a great job."
So there you go, Coogs. You got the game-one victory, and you're 1-0 on the season. You're now in a perfect position to run the table. The next three games are against North Texas, Louisiana Tech and Georgia State. The Cougars don't play another game against a tough, legitimate opponent until game 11 on November 19 when they host SMU. The Cougars should be undefeated going into the SMU game, and they're should be in the prime position to not only play in the C-USA title game, but to also host that game.
The Cougars answered a lot of questions in this game. Case Keenum looked to be in tip-top 2009 form. He showed no hesitation when he had to run the ball, and he and his receivers clicked. Michael Hayes, Bryce Beall and the running game were in mid-season form. And the offensive line did a good job protecting Keenum and opening holes for the running game against a bigger, stronger UCLA defensive front, and center Chris Thompson recovered a Tyron Carrier fumble at the goal line for a score, and what was recorded as Keenum TD pass to Thompson.
"It's always been a dream of mine to score, especially with this high-scoring offense," Thompson said. "At the time, I was like, I guess this is my opportunity. God puts you in a position to capitalize, and I think that's what happened."
While the offense looked to be in good shape, the defense is worrisome. They surrendered 554 yards to a fair-to-middling UCLA offense that out-gained the Coogs on both the ground and through the air. The undersized defense had problems stopping the UCLA receivers, especially big 6-8 tight end Joseph Fauria, who was always open and couldn't be tackled. And as in years past, the defense had the tendency to give up big plays on third down, and just had problems getting the Bruin offense off the field.
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"We're still working," head coach Kevin Sumlin said of the defense. "We've got six or seven new guys out there, depending on what personnel's out there, it might be close to eight or nine guys. And to come through a game like that, that is a physical rugged game, where the game plan basically is to run you over and get their big wide outs in space. I'm pleased we won the game. Can we be better? Yes."
So the Cougars are 1-0, and the table is set just as they want it. They just need to keep their eyes on the prize, and concentrate on playing each game like it's the only game they have left.
'For us it was important because it was the first game," Sumlin said. "I talked to our team today about enjoying this victory, and when they come back next week, on Monday, we have to focus about next week because it's another game."
MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Well-done job by the UH fanbase. The stadium was packed with red on a somewhat miserably hot day. But they were there long before the game, and they made their presence felt....Announced attendance was 31,144, and the temp at kick-off was 92 with a heat index of 95...The Cougars next play at home on September 24 when they host Georgia State....The Rice Owls lost to the Texas Longhorns to open the season for the second straight season. The final score was 34-9 Texas, but at one point midway through the third quarter, the Owls had a first and goal at the eight and were looking to tie the game at 13-13. Then, as happened so often with the Owls last season, they just fell apart, making stupid penalties, failing to take advantage of the great punting of Kyle Martens, and settling time and time again for field goals when they had the chance to score touchdowns....The Owls open up the home portion of their schedule on Saturday when they host Purdue at 2:30.