The Cougars Find Their Swagger and Stun No. 5 Louisville 36-10

Last night’s UH-Louisville game was over before the fans were settled into their TDECU Stadium seats. It was over when Louisville’s Malik Williams fumbled the opening kickoff, a fumble recovered by UH at the Louisville 13-yard line. One play later, Greg Ward Jr. hit running back Duke Catalon with a 13-yard pass for the touchdown.

The score may have been only 7-0, but the point was definitely made. The Cougars were ready to play some football. And Louisville, the No. 5 team in the country, appeared shocked that Houston didn’t just roll over and play dead.

The Cougars (9-2) won the game 36-10, though don’t let that number fool you — the game was never that close. The Cougars offense never quite fired on all cylinders, yet UH found ways to get into the end zone, scoring 31 first half points. One touchdown came when Ward lateraled to receiver Linell Bonner, who ran toward the sideline, planted and threw a bomb to a streaking Chance Allen for a 50-yard touchdown pass. Even punter Dane Roy got in on the fun, pulling off a fake punt and completing a pass for 15 yards to keep a Cougar drive alive.

The record-setting crowd of 42,822 was so loud that Louisville jumped into numerous false start and offside penalties. Supposed Heisman front-runner Lamar Jackson looked about as competent running an offense in the first half of the game as Brock Osweiler looks under center for the Texans. The Cardinals punted the ball six times in the first half, gained just under 140 yards, dropped passes, fumbled and did just about everything wrong.

The UH defense forced three fumbles on the night, got 11 sacks and held Louisville to its lowest point total since 2011. The Cardinals managed to eek out 312 total yards on offense, but the run game was nearly nonexistent and Jackson was held to just 20-of-43 and 211 yards passing.

“Defensively, they’re going to get a lot of credit, and deservedly so,” head coach Tom Herman said after the game. “But I thought that special teams set the tone early, popped out the first kickoff and we scored on one play. I thought our offense took advantage of some of those turnovers. We took advantage of the fake punt conversion.”

Louisville didn’t even get on the board until five minutes had elapsed in the third quarter. Even then, it took Lamar Jackson connecting for a 12-yard TD pass on a fourth-and-three for the Cardinals to score. But on its next drive, with his team in scoring position, Jackson fumbled inside the 10-yard line and the Cougars recovered. And though the offense struggled for the second half (accumulating negative five yards in the third quarter), the damage was done.

This raises the question of just where this Cougar team was back on October 22 when SMU whupped Houston 38-16. The Navy loss was understandable — Navy’s a good team with an outside shot at a New Year’s Six Bowl — but SMU’s win over the Cougars could go down as the most stunning upset of the year.

The Cougar team that lost to SMU was beat up and riddled with injuries. Yet the team looked to have lost its swagger, maybe having been shattered by Navy and the subsequent struggle to beat Tulsa in the next game. This was also the time when the Tom Herman-to-UT/LSU/anywhere else rumors were at their height. But Herman takes exception to that.

“We hadn’t gone anywhere,” Herman said. “We’ve been here all along. We were banged up. We were beat up. We were tired, and we were exhausted in the month of October. That’s not an excuse. That’s reality. Our guys fought through it. They fought through that adversity. They never wavered. They never stopped having confidence.”

Whatever happened to UH after the Navy and SMU games, the Cougars seem to have recovered. UH's odds of making a New Year’s Six bowl are nearly nonexistent, though it is possible. And a bowl game is a certainty, though a bowl game in Birmingham in mid- to late December may not have been what the players, staff or fans were expecting after the Cougars demolished No. 3 Oklahoma to start the season.

The regular season ends for the Cougars next Friday when the team travels to Memphis. Then comes the waiting to find out what bowl game the Cougars will be playing in, and against whom. There’ll be no playoffs this season, and likely no New Year’s glory. But at least the Cougars spoiled the fun for Louisville, and it sure looks like the team regained its swagger.
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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal