The Houston Cougars (6-4) lost a winnable game to the Tulane Green Wave (5-6) on Saturday afternoon. The Cougars trailed 13-3 at the half, thanks to turnovers and questionable play calling. They came back and scored two second half touchdowns, taking a 17-13 lead with just under seven minutes left in the game. But seconds later, the Cougar defense gave up a 64-yard catch-and-run for a the Tulane touchdown.
The final stats point to just how equal the game was. Tulane won the game 20-17, but Houston totaled more yards (445 to 417). D’Eriq King was 18-for-26 for 225 yards with one interception. Tulane’s Jonathan Banks was 17-for-25 for 251 yards with one interception. King was UH’s leading rusher. Banks was the leading rusher for Tulane.
It had looked as if UH had straightened out its offensive problems when head coach Major Applewhite put King in as his quarterback against USF and UH came from behind for the upset win. The offense then looked unstoppable two weeks ago in demolishing ECU. But maybe the offense isn’t fixed. Maybe ECU is just a really bad football team and maybe USF just wasn’t ready for King. Or maybe the Cougars are still struggling with the best way to use King.
The Cougars on Saturday resembled the version of the team seen on the field for most of this season. The offense performed in spurts, but had trouble putting points on the board. Usually Houston has struggled in the second half of the games, but this time it was in the first half.
Tulane’s first points of the game were courtesy of a UH turnover that gave Tulane good field position. Tulane’s first touchdown came off a long drive that started at its six yard line following the failure of the Cougars to convert on a fourth and one — that perhaps leads to a question as to why UH didn’t attempt a field goal so as to put some points on the scoreboard. Tulane’s final points of the first half followed up a fail UH offensive possession in which UH gained just 11 yards.
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The defense didn’t do the Cougars any favors in the first half. Tulane’s last two possessions of the first half were long drives of 13 plays and 12 plays in which the defense had several opportunities to end drives and force punts, but then couldn’t make stops while also giving up several big plays on each drive. Then after the Cougars came back to take the 17-13 lead, the defense gave up a big touchdown play on the second play of the drive, ripping away all momentum that Houston had regained.
The Cougars are still searching for an identity. The swagger from the Tom Herman years is missing. Putting in King and letting him try to recreate Greg Ward Jr.’s magic as the quarterback has brought some spark to the team, but there’s still too much inconsistency. The injury to running back Duke Catalon early in the first quarter appeared to strip the team of some effectiveness in the running game.
Houston’s regular season ends this Friday when the Cougars host a 6-4 Navy squad that took Notre Dame to the brink on Saturday. Navy, with its triple option running game, is always a difficult matchup for the Cougars — as in last season when Navy upset the Cougars 46-40. Even knowing that Navy runs the ball on nearly every play doesn’t make it easy to stop the team because Navy executes that offense superbly and rarely makes mistakes. It’s also a tough offense to plan for because so few teams use the offense.
The Cougars will be going to bowl game, no matter what happens against Navy. It won’t be one of the big name New Year's bowl games. But college coaches talk of loving bowl games, no matter the game, because it allows the team to get several more weeks of practice, and coaches love practice. It becomes not about the bowl game, but about next season, and working to make the team much better able to win games the next year. So maybe with all of the extra practice the Cougars will be primed to excel in 2018.