D’Eriq King took the reins of the Houston Cougars (6-3) offense on Saturday morning and it was a beautiful thing to behold. The very first University of Houston drive was an 11-play, 75-yard drive mixing rush and pass and climaxing in a King TD rush. The Cougars led from that point on, easily dissecting the East Carolina University Pirates (2-7) defense for the commanding 52-27 win.
Head coach Major Applewhite had talked before the start of the season about how he wanted his offense’s rushing game keyed on his running backs and not on his quarterback, as it had been during Greg Ward, Jr.’s tenure at quarterback. But the offense often stalled and hiccuped and struggled to generate points under first Kyle Allen and then under Kyle Postma, so the change was made, a mobile QB in the mode of Ward who can not only throw deep but can also run.
UH started multiple offensive possessions by throwing deep down the sideline to Steven Dunbar and once gaining great field position, mixing an effective running game with passes to get points. King didn’t rush often with the ball, but his ability to pull it down and run coupled with his ability to hit receivers on short, middle, and deep routes kept the ECU defense off-balance.
The win clinched bowl-eligibility for the Cougars with two games remaining in the season. The possibility of a 8-3 season for Houston, not deemed to be very probable after the back-to-back losses to Tulsa and Memphis, is still a reality.
The first drive of the game was the harbinger of how the rest of the day would go. The Cougars used effective play-calling and super execution. The blocking was crisp and the backs hit holes. It was without doubt the best that UH looked on offense all season. And then it continued with more drives displaying that same level of excellence.
The Cougars ran just 48 plays yet still accumulated 472 total yards on offense. There were no 100-yard rushers for the Cougars, but the offense generated 142 yards on the ground, averaging 5.5 yards per rush.
In his first game as starting quarterback, King went 15-for-21 for 330 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 14 yards and a touchdown. Steven Dunbar and Linell Bonner took full advantage of King’s passing ability. Each caught a TD, each went for over 100 yards in receptions, each was a danger to break it for the touchdown on every catch.
“[King] allows you to do a lot of the same things that Greg was able to do. Today specifically, we tried to take some of the run game out of D’Eriq’s hands unless it was just an absolute advantageous run because he had suffered some really hard hits last week against South Florida. We tried not to feature him in the run game too much,” Applewhite said.
The caveat, obviously, is that ECU is a bad football team with a bad defense. But it was with King as quarterback that the offense not only looked its best against USF last Saturday, but came back to get the win.
The defense got off to a strong start. But once UH got the 21-0 first quarter lead, ECU found itself able to operate with some effectiveness on offense. ECU finished with 504 total yards on offense. Pirates QB Gardner Minshew came off of the bench to complete 52-of-68 passes for 463 yards and three TDS. He also threw one ball that was intercepted by Brandon McDowell who returned it 74 yards for a UH touchdown, and several more of his passes were dropped by UH defenders.
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“I’m pissed off about it,” Applewhite said about the defense’s performance. “I’ve got to go back and see are we in the wrong place. Are we not recognizing what patterns are coming? Are we too predictable with what we’re calling? There’s a fine line. There’s a weaknesses to every side of the football. So there’s things that you have to do as a play caller to hide those weaknesses. When you do something to hiding, you’re going to give up something else.”
TDECU Stadium was far from packed, and it is evident that the enthusiasm the Tom Herman-era Cougars generated among UH fans and Houstonians has dissipated. By the end of the game, the stands across from the press box, from the lower level up to the upper deck were nearly empty. The weather was hot and humid, and the team has not been very exciting, so that may have worked against attendance, but a bowl-bound UH football team should still be able to generate some level of excitement.
The Cougars have a bye this coming week, then return to play in two weeks at Tulane. UH will finish the season with a home game at TDECU Stadium on Friday, November 24 when the Cougars host Navy.