Amidst a flurry of rumors and denials, the Houston Cougars came out Friday to play a football game against the Memphis Tigers. And with head coach Tom Herman angrily denying stories that he was to be the next coach of the LSU Tigers, the Cougars went out and looked like a team that has dealt with way too much and wanted this season to be all over.
Memphis took control on the second play of the game, a play-action pass turning into a 67-yard bomb to a wide-open Phil Mayhue for the touchdown. The Tigers (8-4) dominated the first half of play, leading 34-17 and enduring a furious UH second-half comeback. The Cougars (9-3) took the 44-41 lead with just over a minute left in the game, but that ended up not mattering as Memphis promptly marched the ball up the field with almost no resistance from UH to get the 48-44 win when QB Riley Ferguson hit Anthony Miller for a 10-yard touchdown.
If this is the end of the Tom Herman era at UH, then the end has to be considered a disappointment. This final game epitomized the entirety of the second half of this UH season, which saw the Cougars morphing between looking unprepared (Navy), shellshocked (Tulsa), overconfident (SMU), struggling (UCF), on-the-mend (Tulane), dominating (Louisville) and then, finally, checked-out (Memphis).
The Cougar defense, which dominated a top-ranked Louisville last week, didn’t even show up for the first half as Memphis scored every time it had the ball. The Cougars surrendered 373 yards in the first half (268 through the air) while letting Memphis average 7.9 yards a play. The Tigers stayed on the attack, forcing the action, seemingly catching UH off-guard on multiple plays as if the defensive coaching staff had spent the week house-hunting in Baton Rouge and Austin instead of working up a game plan.
The first half offense was only marginally better than the defense, in that the Cougars had some small successes on offense, figuring out how to score on three possessions. But UH accumulated only 281 yards in the first half as it appeared that Memphis’s defense had figured out how to stop UH.
It was only in the second half that the Cougars came close to resembling the team that defeated Oklahoma and Louisville. The defense shut down Memphis, holding the Tigers to just 14 points after surrendering 34 in the first half, and the UH offense sprang to life, putting up 343 yards and 27 points.
Yet much of Memphis’s play in the second half could doubtless be attributed to the approach the Tigers took. The offense, particularly, looked as if it were playing not to lose the game, instead of playing to win. It was akin to watching a Gary Kubiak-type offense with the Texans and the Broncos. Instead of going for the jugular, Memphis started playing it safe, calling run play after run play on first and second down, often with no success, thus forcing Memphis into countless third and long situations. It was only after UH had stormed back to take the 37-34 lead midway through the fourth quarter (UH’s first lead of the day) that Memphis went back on the attack. And as in the first half, the Cougars were just unable to handle a Memphis team that was truly on the offensive.
Thus the question, what happens now? If Tom Herman is gone from UH, his 22-4 record in two seasons, conference title, major bowl win and high rankings are tossed to the wayside. That is, if the numerous rumors are real, including that one from Thursday night that had him nearing a deal to take over at LSU. If he’s gone, then what? What of the so-called H-Town Takeover, which saw the Cougars grabbing attention in Houston even among people who never went to the University of Houston?
The questions will be answered later. Maybe later today, maybe tomorrow, maybe sometime this week. But until that time, what remains are the memories of a lousy 48-44 loss to Memphis to bring the regular season to what has to be a sour end for the UH administration, coaching staff, players, alumni and fans.
There’s one game left, a lower-tier bowl game that will bring none of the glamour or excitement the Peach Bowl brought to the Cougars last year. But still, a bowl game all the same, and one that perhaps the Cougars will treat like it’s a game against Louisville and not like it’s a game against Memphis.