It wasn’t pretty. It definitely wasn’t exciting. But whatever it was, the Houston Cougars still managed to get the 30-18 win over Tulane yesterday to move to 8-2 on the season before a homecoming crowd of just 36,952, another below-sell-out crowd for a team that just last month was the talk of Houston and in the hunt for the college football playoffs.
The Cougars struggled on offense all day, with Greg Ward Jr. spending most of the first half scrambling for yardage while seeking open receivers. Things took a turn for the worse when Ward was injured at the end of the first half, then took another turn for the worse when Ward’s backup, Kyle Postma, was injured in the third quarter, necessitating the return of the injured Ward.
That the Cougars scored 30 points was a testament to the play of the defense and of the special teams. Especially the special teams. Punter Dane Roy punted 11 times for 486 yards, averaging 44.2 yards per punt, constantly pinning Tulane in bad field position. Roy’s first punt even led to the first UH touchdown as Tulane’s Parry Nickerson muffed his punt and UH’s Jeremy Winchester recovered the ball in the end zone for the UH score.
“It was just as surprising to me as it was to you,” Winchester said after the game. “I just capitalized on an opportunity where someone didn't catch the ball, and after it ended [up in the end zone], I dove on it and saw the [official’s] hands go up; I said, that’s good. I went to the sideline and it was better than I thought. I was happy.”
The UH defense, with the aid of the special teams, pretty much shut down Tulane for the game — Tulane had just 341 yards of total offense for the game (162 of those yards came in the fourth quarter after UH had pretty much put the game away with a 28-10 lead). The defense had 13 tackles for loss of yardage and four sacks, and at one point, the defense forced eight straight Tulane possessions to end in punts. And the defense got the final points in the game when a Tulane lineman was called for a face mask penalty in the end zone, resulting in a safety.
Houston’s offense wasn’t much better than Tulane’s, though, accumulating just 287 yards of total offense as it struggled to find any kind of rhythm that would lead to yardage — the first time since the 2014 game loss to UTSA that opened TDECU Stadium that the Cougars have finished with fewer than 300 total yards on offense. Tulane does have a good defense, one of the top 30 in the nation in many categories. But at times, watching the Cougars try to gain yards felt like watching the Houston Texans struggle against any team with a winning record.
Ward finished the game just 18-for-30 with 189 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another touchdown. Postma finished just 3-of-6 for 32 yards with an interception before leaving with his injury. Duke Catalon was Houston’s leading rusher, running the ball 20 times for 50 yards. And whatever offense the Cougars had disappeared in the second half as UH, with the 28-10 lead, went conservative, unwilling to put Ward in danger of further injury after Postma went down.
“We have to run the football better,” head coach Tom Herman said. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. But when you’re not running the football well, and you have no quarterbacks that are 100 percent, you play great defense and you flip the field. I thought our special teams did a great job.”
The overall result of the game was good for the Cougars, but UH should be troubled, especially since this is a short week, with the Cougars hosting Louisville on Thursday night. There’s the injury issues with the quarterbacks and Herman's attempting to figure out who the backup is in case of further injuries. He’s not happy with the running game, and the Cougars will be facing Lamar Jackson, the man Herman calls the undisputed best player in college football.
“It will be a big-time challenge for us,” Herman said of Louisville, “but one that I know our guys are very, very excited to take part in.”
So maybe this isn’t the season the Cougars were hoping for in August. And maybe the team has struggled a bit since the UConn game last month. Yet there is that 8-2 record. There is a bowl game, and a win on Thursday could end up spoiling the season for Louisville.