The Houston Cougars did the most important, necessary thing they could do Saturday night. On a wet, gray, misty, overcast night, the Cougars did to the visiting Vanderbilt Commodores what the Saturday morning storms did to the city of Houston: shut them down completely.
The Cougars defeated Vanderbilt (3-5) 34-0 to go 8-0 for the season. It wasn’t a pretty game. There were no spectacular offensive plays, no fireworks from quarterback Greg Ward Jr. Houston led only 7-0 after the first quarter, but went to the half with the 20-0 lead. The offense was rather stagnant, with both of UH’s first half touchdowns set up by interceptions that put the Cougars in prime scoring territory.
But when not setting up the UH defense, the Cougar defense smothered Vanderbilt. The Commodores finished the first half having gained only 80 total yards, getting just four first downs and not making it past the 50 yard line. The defense even got in on the scoring when William Jackson nabbed an interception and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown.
“In college football, that’s a pretty hard thing to do in today’s day and age,” head coach Tom Herman said about shutting out Vanderbilt. “Again, there was not any fire and brimstone [on my part]. I just reminded them before we went out to do their job to the best of their abilities and to play with a purpose. That purpose is for the love and success for the guy next to them. The defense certainly responded and played at the level they’re capable of.”
The defense held Vanderbilt to a total of 185 yards, including just 40 passing yards. The Vanderbilt quarterbacks completed a total of five passes, and the team finished with a total of just 12 first downs while turning the ball over four times. And for everything the defense accomplished, the offense became the first on a college team this year to score two offensive touchdowns in the first half against Vanderbilt this season.
It was a dominating win, the complete and total annihilation of an opponent. Maybe the win served to prove a point to those observers who may have been still doubting the Cougars. Houston took on a power conference team, one with a supposedly strong defense, and essentially did whatever it wanted, when it wanted to do it.
In many ways, this Cougar team appears to be much better than the 2011 team that came one disappointing loss short of making one of the major bowl games. The defense is opportunistic, but it’s also capable of being physical, shutting down opponents and taking over a game, something that 2011 defense wasn’t capable of doing. And the offense can strike fast, but it’s also capable of just pounding the ball down an opponent’s throat — the Cougars' final possession Saturday night took nearly nine minutes off the clock and left Vanderbilt in no position to put points on the board.
And to make the win that much better for the Cougars, it came before a nationally televised audience, much of which probably still thinks of the Cougars as a quick-strike spread offense team with a defense that struggles to prevent opponents from scoring.
“Anytime you get an opportunity to play on national TV, and to showcase what you’re all about and showcase the things that you’ve been working so hard to achieve and instill in our guys, it’s nice to let the whole country see that,” Herman said. “It was a great advertisement for the University of Houston.”
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But don’t talk to Herman about the Cougars being 8-0 — something the team’s done only four other times (and for the first time since 2011). The record at the moment means nothing because that’s in the past. What matters is the coming game against Cincinnati. And once that game is over, what matters is the game against Memphis.
“Nothing. That’s not to be coy or standoffish,” Herman said when asked what being 8-0 meant. “It really has no bearing on how we prepare for Cincinnati, because the culture we have instilled in our program is that we've got 14 one-game seasons, and we went 1-0 this week. We have another opportunity to go 1-0 again against a conference opponent next week.”
The Cougars have now scored points in 193 consecutive games, and this weekend the team scored on the nation’s 13th-ranked scoring defense. Houston has also scored 30-plus points in its last 12 games. The defense meanwhile has forced 93 turnovers over the past two seasons, while the team is one of only two in the nation with six wins of 21-plus points.
The Cougars host Cincinnati on Saturday afternoon at 2:30. It’s a chance for Herman and his guys to prove, once again, that they’re for real and deserve to be taken seriously. And it’s one of only three remaining chances for Houstonians to get out to TDECU Stadium and see the best team in Houston in person.