Here's the thing about that Houston Cougars loss to Mississippi State last week. The defense was often in the right place, at the right time, to be able to make the play.
They just didn't make the plays. They whiffed on tackles. They got blocked at the last minute. The runner bowled them over.
So being in the right place at the right time doesn't mean the play will actually be made. Not if the UH players are smaller than the opposition. Nor if they let themselves get shoved out of the way. But Cougar head coach Kevin Sumlin has a solution for that little size problem. He wants his team to get more physical.
"We've got to be more physical at the point of attack," he said. "Our size is our size. That's not going to change."
And part of being more physical means executing. Not just bouncing off of a back, but wrapping up the back and making the tackle.
But that physical thing applies to more than just the defense. For if the offense is going to work, there are certain guys who are going to have to get physical, and that's the offensive line, the guys doing the blocking and keeping freshman quarterback David Piland safe. Piland proved he could make the necessary throws when he had the time, but often he was under heavy pressure and had to rush a pass to prevent a sack.
Sumlin is adamant that it's about more than one player. It's about more than just the quarterback because the quarterback can't win the game on his own. Not when the line and running backs aren't making the blocks. Not when the receivers are dropping balls thrown their way. Not when everybody is making little mistakes that accumulate into big mistake which then accumulate into losses.
"The story of the [Mississippi State] game is not necessarily the play of the quarterbacks but the play of many of the other guys on the field that we've come to count on that were sporadic," he said. "Our team losses, we've been sporadic in our play. And played in spurts, and that's not good enough. I think we've been ready to play, we've scored in those situations, have had either turnovers or something happen, and have not responded the way that we needed to in those two losses."
This week the Cougars are facing cross-town rival Rice in the annual Bayou Bucket game. The Owls are 1-5 on the season and if there is any team that knows about how little things can kill a team, it's the Owls. But Kevin Sumlin's still concerned about this game, no matter what Rice's record is.
"You've got a situation where you have a number of players, an infusion of talent there," he said. "Highly recruited players that are at Rice now who are trying to get on track with the team. [Rice QB] Nick Fanuzzi was extremely highly recruited...there's no doubt that he's a very, very, very talented guy. Just like [Rice running back] Sam McGuffie. You've got two of the highest recruited guys in the state of Texas on that football team. And they're dangerous, dangerous guys."
The Cougars have their own talent as well, and this group of talent will be led, once again, by Piland, who Sumlin thought did a fine job considering the pressure he was under against Mississippi State.
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"Based on everything that went on throughout the course of the game, what we asked him to, he operated pretty well," Sumlin said. "As I said before, football's a team game; it's not a one-man game. Unfortunately, we didn't have the surrounding cast play as well as they needed to play for us to win. He played above-average, and he played well enough to execute and do some things for us to win."
The Owls are, in many ways, the perfect team for the Cougars to meet up with this weekend. The Cougars are bigger and quicker than the Owls, and they are more talented than Rice. But the Cougars can't take this game too lightly, and if they play some physical football like Sumlin desires, then they should be fine.
And biggest thing of all, should the Cougars pull off the expected win, they'll go to 3-0 in C-USA play and move one step closer to their ultimate preseason goal: winning Conference USA.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: The game is set for kickoff at 2:30 p.m. from Rice Stadium. It will be televised on Comcast Sports South. The series between Houston and Rice is the longest-running series in Cougar football history. Houston leads the all-time series against Rice 36-10....despite the multiple QBs who have played for the Cougars this year, the team has still been able to score once it has gotten into the red zone, scoring 24 out of 28 times (19 TDs and five field goals).