How quickly the Houston Cougar bandwagon empties. A loss to Navy, a narrow win over Tulsa, an embarrassing loss to SMU and suddenly TDECU Stadium is half empty for a Saturday morning kickoff against the visiting UCF Knights. Even the student section, usually packed to the gills as soon as the gates open, was mostly empty, as if the students have suddenly determined there are better, more important things they can do on a Saturday morning.
The Cougars played down to the now nonexistent expectations of the empty bandwagon for most of the game. UCF took the 7-0 lead on its second possession of the game. UH quarterback Greg Ward Jr. threw three interceptions in the first half while the UH defense committed multiple stupid penalties that kept UCF scoring drives alive — including negating a missed 43-yard field goal by UCF thanks to a personal foul penalty. The Cougars were down 21-3 at the half, and quickly fell behind 24-3 to start the second half.
But it was an entirely different game in the second half. The Cougar offense came back to life, scoring four times and grabbing the 31-24 lead on Ward's 14-yard keeper with 3:50 left in the game. The defense shut down UCF, holding the Knights to negative five yards in the third quarter and 34 yards in the fourth while forcing four turnovers.
It wasn’t the most impressive-looking of 31-24 wins. But right now the Cougars (7-2) don’t need impressive. The team needs wins. And it’s to the team’s credit that it came back like it did in the second half because it would have been just too easy to keep playing the way it's been playing instead of playing like the team that demolished Oklahoma to open the season.
“There was a ton of confidence and positivity in that locker room at halftime,” head coach Tom Herman said after the game. “We obviously needed that. Our defense came out and lifted our spirits and got the ball back to our offense, and we finally started blocking people, running the football, and making great decisions, and putting the ball in the end zone, and protecting [the ball] as well. It’s a credit to our kids and our coaching staff for making the necessary adjustments at halftime, and also for our kids for buying into the culture, and buying into their training on how we respond to adversity. Most of [the adversity], obviously, self-inflicted.”
The Cougars have been subject to lots and lots of self-inflicted adversity the past month. Even before that Navy loss, things had been out of whack. There were hints of problems directly before the UConn game when linebackers Tyrus Bowser and Matthew Adams tangled with each other at a team bonding event. Both players missed the game — Bowser because of an injury that has kept him out of action since the incident, and Adams because he was suspended for the game. Then linebacker Steven Taylor was suspended for the Navy game because of a violation of team rules.
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Since that UConn game, the Cougars have lost to Navy, came close to losing to Tulsa and the less said about SMU the better. The Cougars have fallen out of contention for a New Year’s Day bowl game. The team has fallen out of the College Playoff hunt. The Big 12 decided not to expand, leaving UH to wither in the AAC. The offense has been so discombobulated for long periods of the past four games that it looks as if Bill O’Brien has taken over play-calling duties while Brock Osweiler plays quarterback. Then throw in all the rumors about Tom Herman and seemingly every head coaching job in the NCAA, and just like that the Cougars look just like any other mediocre college football team.
“Finally, I think the message finally sunk in that things aren’t always going to go well,” Herman said. “The worst thing that you can do is press and try to do things outside of your training.”
So maybe the corner is turned, and the spiral is halted. Herman believes that his team has been playing to not lose instead of playing to win, and he hopes the comeback in this game makes his team realize that it has to stop pressing and just play football.
The Cougars do not play this week, and will now get a bit of time to regroup, recover from injuries and begin preparations for the closing stretch of the season. The next game is November 12 at TDECU Stadium against Tulane. And who knows, maybe the bandwagon will start to fill up again.