The much-maligned Houston Cougar defense held the high-octane offense of the Tulsa Golden Hurricane to only 28 points on Saturday night. But that wasn't enough because the high-octane Houston Cougar offense misfired throughout the game and the Cougars, playing their final home game of the season, went down to defeat 28-25 in a game that might have dashed the team's bowl hopes for the season.
"Our defense did really well," head coach Kevin Sumlin said after the game. "We're both averaging 40 points a game, and to hold them to only 28 was a great showing on our defense. It came down to who could make the most big plays on defense and they did that tonight."
Those big defensive plays for Tulsa included intercepting Cougar quarterback David Piland five times, the last interception coming with the Cougars driving and 5:39 left in the game. The Cougars wouldn't get the ball back, and the interception ended a furious second-half comeback that saw the team clawing back from a 21-7 halftime deficit.
The Cougars were definitely a different team in the second half as the offense finally started clicking on all cylinders, at least it looked that way. Piland threw four of his interceptions in the first half, and Sumlin credited those with Tulsa throwing different defensive looks at the team than they'd seen in the past. But they were able to make halftime adjustments and the team started rolling.
"Something sparked it," receiver James Cleveland said. "Maybe it was the halftime speech from the coach. Maybe it was the realization that we only scored seven points in the first half. I don't know what it was, but it was definitely a spark, and it helped us tonight."
The biggest spark of all had to have come from the defense which held the Golden Hurricane to only 21 first half points despite the first half offensive meltdown. And on most nights, holding the Golden Hurricane to a total of 28 points would be more than enough for a victory, especially seeing as how Tulsa is averaging around 40 points for the season.
But nothing that the defense did could make up for the turnovers. Because teams that turn the ball over five times in a game generally don't win, no matter how good the defense.
"Obviously you can't turn the ball over that many times against anybody, let alone a team that's equal to you and expect to win the game," Sumlin said. "I thought that in light of all, for our guys to be in position, certainly at the end of the game, to have a chance to win, I'm proud of our seniors. I'm disappointed for them."
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But as disappointed as Sumlin is, his level of disappointment is nowhere near that of the players, or of the fans. This was a season that started with high expectations in which just any bowl game wasn't going to be good enough, and winning Conference USA wasn't going to be good enough. The seniors were going to go out on a high, wiping out the disappointment of last season that saw the team bomb in the C-USA title game while being wiped out in the Armed Forces Bowl. Now the team sits at 5-5 on the season and faces the daunting challenge of going on the road and needing to defeat either Southern Mississippi or Texas Tech to make one of the many minor bowls that dot the college football landscape.
"It's difficult," Cleveland said. "It's really difficult because of high expectations for this year. It definitely didn't include five losses on any scale. It's going to be hard to bounce back, but it'll be a test of our character, and to see what type of team we are actually. We have two games left, and we still have the opportunity to finish above .500, and our main focus is to come out and win next week."
The Cougars will need an excellent performance from their defense again this week. But more than the defense, they're going to need the offense to step up and perform. There need to be no turnovers. There need to be few mistakes. The team needs to put together a complete performance against a good team for the first time this season. And hopefully it won't be too late.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Despite his four first-half interceptions, Kevin Sumlin says he never considered benching David Piland and going with backup Terrance Broadway....Piland did throw three touchdown passes, including a 64-yard strike to Kierrie Johnson in the fourth quarter that put the Cougars back into the game....Johnson recorded his first 100-plus receiving yards game of the season, and the third of his career....This was Houston's first lost to Tulsa since November 2006, a 56-7 Tulsa win....Tyron Carrier, with four catches on Saturday, can now claim a reception in 37 straight games, which accounts for every game in his collegiate career.