The University of Houston Cougars will go to a bowl game this season. It just won’t be one of the College Football Playoff bowl games. And it won’t be one of the New Year's six bowls. Not after getting whomped on by the SMU Mustangs last night.
SMU (3-4) defeated the Cougars (6-2) 38-16. But the game was never as close as that score indicates. SMU was up 21-0 early in the second quarter. It was up 21-7 at the half, then 28-7 in the third quarter. The Mustangs ran and passed the ball with ease while the defense shut down the Cougars, sacking Greg Ward Jr. seven times and never letting the Cougars get into any kind of offensive rhythm.
This was the third week in a row that the Cougars have looked ill-prepared for a game. The defensive unit was on its heels all night and seemed to have no idea what the Mustangs were doing from play to play. SMU gained 406 yards, including 228 by pass and 178 on the ground. The Ponies accumulated more first downs than the Cougars and were perfect in the red zone.
The Cougars finally slowed SMU down late in the second quarter, but by then it was too late for the Cougars to do anything. Tom Herman told the ESPN sideline reporter at the half that his team needed to learn how to take a punch, but this was the second game out of the last three that the Cougars were knocked out before the team could fight back — and Tulsa, last week, seemed to have the Cougars on the ropes at times.
And SMU never let UH get going on offense, limiting the Cougars to just 303 yards. The Mustangs seemed to key on stopping Ward, and the Cougars just don’t seem to be able to do anything if Ward is ineffective. Ward completed 21 of 33 passes for the night, but he only threw for 241 yards and was held to just three yards rushing on 17 attempts.
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Maybe the pressure has finally gotten to the team. There was the pressure to have the perfect season and make the playoffs. There was the pressure to win the conference and go to one of the New Year's bowls. There’s been all the hoopla over whether the Cougars were going to get into the Big 12. Not to mention Herman’s name being seemingly attached to every major college job in the country, particularly Texas and LSU.
Perhaps it’s just the case that the Cougars have to be used to being the team that everyone wants to beat. The Cougars were a bit of a surprise last year. Not that they weren’t expected to win games last season, but no one outside of the program thought the Cougars would win 13 games, win the conference and win a New Year's bowl game. But now everyone knows UH has talent, a hot quarterback and a big-time coach, so opponents are all lying in wait, giving UH the best effort possible because knocking off the king is way more meaningful than beating up on the dregs of the conference — witness SMU’s fans storming the field after the game.
Now the Cougars have to regroup. The next game is Saturday morning, when UH hosts UCF, another conference opponent. And the UCF coaches are going to be watching this SMU game film (and the Tulsa and Navy films) and they're going to home in on UH's weaknesses. They’re going to try to take Ward out of the game and make the rest of the offense make plays.
So the Cougars won’t be going to one of the big bowl games. Maybe UH will go to the AutoNation Cure Bowl in Orlando on December 17. Or the Birmingham Bowl on December 29. But the Cougars will be bowling, and UH fans' being disappointed by just making a minor bowl shows just how much Houston has improved since Herman arrived, and just how high the expectations around the team have been.