Watching the Houston Cougars lose 47-24 to the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Saturday night was a bit like watching a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Things got off to a great start as the Cougars got the kick and drove 64 yards in eight plays behind the pinpoint, precision passing of freshman starting quarterback David Piland to take the 7-0 lead. Then the Houston defense stopped the Bulldogs on their first drive, forcing a punt.
But just like with the Wile E. Coyote cartoons, things are never as they appear, the brilliant plan never quite as brilliant as it appears. Because, despite forcing the punt, things were just about to fall apart.
Patrick Edwards muffed the punt and Mississippi State recovered the ball at the Cougars' seven-yard line. Two plays later, the Bulldogs had tied the game at 7-7. The Cougars got the ball back, and behind Piland, drove back down the field. Of course, things were a bit off this time. Receivers were dropping passes. Balls were batted down at the line of scrimmage. A field goal was missed. And just like that, the game was over.
Three plays after the missed field goal, Mississippi State had gone 80 yards to go up 14-7. The defense's attempts at tackling were like Wile E. Coyote gripping at air as he stood on nothingness just before falling hundreds of feet to the canyon floor. By the time the first half ended, the score was 33-10 and the Cougars were well on their way to loss number two on the season.
"It did [feel self-inflicted]," head coach Kevin Sumlin said about the loss. "But Mississippi State played very, very well. They executed. The bottom line is they executed and we didn't. I thought we came out with energy and intensity, obviously with the plan. I thought David [Piland] was very, very sharp at the beginning of the game. I thought offensively we were very sharp. Defensively we stop them. Force a punt, muff the punt. Give them the ball at the [seven], they score..., which was a huge momentum swing at the beginning of the game. We miss a tackle and give up a 40-yard run the next series and they're back down there again."
The second half was more of the same. When Piland wasn't under constant and steady pressure forcing him to hurry his passes, he had to deal with the normally sure-handed Houston receiving corps dropping pass after pass. When the offense did seem to pull off a big play, they were hit with a penalty. And the defense was no better, flailing away on the field and missing tackle after tackle, especially when it came to stopping the Mississippi State running game.
"It's a concern. It's a concern, particularly against that scheme," Sumlin said about his run defense. "I don't know how you could come out of this game and not be concerned."
Much like UCLA several weeks ago, Mississippi State had their way with the Cougars. Whatever they wanted to do offensively, they did. They ran the ball with ease, gaining 409 yards on 57 rushes for an average of 7.2 yards a rush. When they needed to pass the ball, they passed the ball. Those few times they had a short-yarded situation, they were able to get the short yards.
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As for the offense, the simplistic person would put the blame on Piland. But Piland wasn't responsible for blocking. He wasn't responsible for not hitting holes. He wasn't responsible for catching passes. He wasn't perfect, but not even Case Keenum could have pulled out a victory for the Cougars on Saturday night.
"David did a great job for us today," running back Bryce Beall said. "The o-line and running backs, we've got to do a better job of protecting him. He had a lot of guys open in a lot situations and we just couldn't protect nobody, and he was getting hit and the timing was off. But we've got to do a lot better job protecting, get comfortable so he doesn't feel like he has to rush..."
So it's back to the drawing board the Cougars go. Just like Wile E. Coyote, "genius." But perhaps they should try someone other than ACME for the materials, or else that bright light at the end of the tunnel might be an onrushing freight train.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: The Cougars were called for offensive holding at the end of the first quarter. Since the hold was in the end zone, a safety was called and the Cougars were down 23-7. For those of you wondering, the ensuing punt from the UH 20 was not an "onside" punt, it was, instead, a muffed punt by Richie Leonie who just missed the ball. Either way, Mississippi State had the ball at the Houston 30 to start the second quarter...Despite Terrance Broadway finishing the game at quarterback, Kevin Sumlin was emphatic that Piland is his starting QB....The announced attendance was 32,067, though the stadium did appear to be a bit emptier than that.