It's been a tough season for the 5-5 Houston Cougars. They lost their starting quarterback, Case Keenum, to an ACL injury in the season's third game, a loss to UCLA. They lost his back-up, Cotton Turner, for the season to injury in that same game. Key defensive players have been hit with injuries. The team has lost numerous close games, Rice, UCF, Tulsa, which last year they would have found ways to win.
"It's definitely been tough," junior running back Bryce Beall said on Tuesday. "I don't think this has been the season anybody expected from us, but you just got to out there and continue to play."
And continue to play the Cougars will, starting tomorrow when they travel to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to play the 7-3 Southern Miss Golden Eagles. The Golden Eagles are battling with UCF and East Carolina for first place in the East Division of Conference USA and the rights to represent C-USA in the Liberty Bowl.
Southern Miss represents another challenge for the Cougar offense as the Golden Eagles are one of the top offensive teams in C-USA. They average 34.2 points a game while grinding out an average of 429.3 yards per game. But unlike last week's opponent, Tulsa, the Golden Eagles also offer a top-notch defensive squad with C-USA's best rushing defense, number three scoring defense, and number four pass defense.
But the defensive challenge doesn't bother Beall all that much: "We've kind of seen this before [UCF was number one defensively when they played and Beall and Michael Hayes combined for over 200 rushing yards against them]," he said. "We have to stay consistent, go out there, read our keys. And just be physical and make plays, and try to do what we've been doing all year."
The key for the Cougars tomorrow night is the same as what it has been the entire season. The Cougars have to concentrate on playing their game, and playing their game correctly. They need to execute the offense, make the blocks, hold onto the football, and minimize the turnovers. The defense has to not only make tackles, but they have to find some way to get off of the field on third down rather than letting the opposition have a whole new set of downs. But most important of all, the Cougars cannot allow a repeat of what happened last week against Tulsa.
"They just played harder than we did in the first half," Beall said. "They prepared well against us, and they just came out and played harder than we did. We just have to do a better job of starting fast, like we've been saying all year. We didn't do that against Tulsa. We played well in the second half, but we didn't play well in the first half."
While Southern Miss is playing for the top spot in C-USA, the Cougars are playing for something themselves. The Cougars are playing for that all-important sixth win. That magical win that will make the team bowl eligible. And it's striving for this sixth win that is making this game a must-win for the Cougars.
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"Definitely I would say," Beall said. "We want to give our seniors a chance to go to a bowl game and to extend their career as far as we can. We're going to go out there and try to get that sixth victory."
The Cougars know that Hattiesburg is a tough environment in which to play football -- Beall says he enjoys playing at the opposition because he likes quieting the crowd -- but the environment might be a bit tougher than normal this week, as Southern Miss will have the whole emotional element probably working in their factor. An emotional element arising from three of their players being shot -- one apparently paralyzed -- after last week's upset win over UCF.
The Cougars are used to playing in tough environments. They're used to playing top offensive and defensive squads. They're also used to one other thing: nobody does a better job of defeating the Cougars than the Cougars do of defeating themselves. If the Cougars play the way they're capable of playing, as a team, without mistakes, for sixty minutes, then this should be a game they can win. But with the Cougars this season, that's a big if.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES: This is the 12th time these two teams have met, and Southern Miss leads the series 7-4. Southern Miss is 4-1 in games played at home....Bryce Beall is 195 yards short of posting his second career 1000-yard rushing season, something he also did in 2008. Patrick Edwards is 202 receiving yards short of recording his second straight 1000-yard receiving season....Saturday's game will be televised by CBS College Sports at 7 p.m., and it will be broadcast on radio by 790 with Tom Franklin handling the play-by-play.