It's easy to blame the Houston Cougar defense for Saturday's 37-32 loss to the University of Central Florida Knights. After all, the Knights scored 37 points, gained 393 yards, and controlled the ball for almost 40 minutes of of the game.
If the defense makes some plays, then the loss doesn't happen.
Houston Cougar head coach Kevin Sumlin has said in the past that his guys win as a team, and they lose as a team. And Case Keenum, who likely saw his Heisman chances torpedoed with the loss, has told us before that the best defense is a good offense. So if that really is the case, then perhaps a little examination of the offense is in order.
The Cougars fumbled at the UCF nine-yard line and the UCF 20-yard line on consecutive possessions in the first quarter. The offense ran only four plays in the second quarter. The offense started the second half by going three-and-out on three straight possessions.
The offense got a touchdown at the 6:55 mark of the first period. The offense didn't score another touchdown for forty-seven minutes, late in the fourth quarter.
It's not totally the fault of the UH offense. The UCF defense played some good football, forcing turnover after turnover. And the UCF offense did what many other teams have failed to do against the Cougars this season: They ran the ball. And then they ran the ball again. And they ran it again.
So this is a loss that probably shouldn't be so surprising.
The Cougars needed to score late in the fourth to defeat Southern Miss, and they needed to pull off the miracle to defeat Tulsa last week. They had a last-second win against Texas Tech. And they had to come from behind to defeat Oklahoma State. Maybe the magic just finally ran out.
For the most part, the special teams did their part. Devon Mays ran a kick back 100 yards to put the Cougars up 17-3 midway through the second. L.J. Castile blocked an extra point. Matt Hogan converted his kicks. Chase Turner boomed his punts. But in the end, the special teams didn't matter because the rest of the squad just didn't perform.
As said above, it would be easy to blame the defense. The Cougars have a young defense which has had problems stopping the running game this season. And on Saturday, the defense just didn't seem capable of making the key stops when the key stops were needed, especially in the second quarter when the UCF offense controlled the ball for 13:30.
But at some point, a player is going to get exhausted, and when the defense is on the field for nearly an entire quarter, the exhaustion is going to come into play. Mays returning the kick for the touchdown in the second quarter didn't help the defense, as they had to trot right back out onto the field. And while the guys had halftime to recover, there's only so much recovering that can be done when the offense can't generate a drive of any type as it was unable to do for so much of the second half.
So blame the defense, but equally at fault was an offense that, for the first time this year, wasn't able to generate points or grind out plays.
The loss did more than just drop the Cougars record to 8-2. It lowered the team's conference record to 4-2. And as a result, the Cougars now find themselves trailing SMU in the C-USA West standings because SMU won on Saturday to make its conference record 5-1 (6-4 on season).
If the Cougars can find a way to tie SMU in the standings, then UH wins the division because they defeated SMU earlier in the year. But for that to happen, the Cougars must not only get back on a winning streak, but they've also got to hope that either Marshall, 5-3 (3-3 in C-USA) or Tulane 3-7 (1-5 in C-USA) defeat SMU. And seeing as how Tulane just lost to the previously winless Rice Owls, it wouldn't pay to put any hope into Tulane getting the job done.
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But maybe some realistic thinking is needed right now. Who would have thought that not only would the Cougars be 8-2 at this point of the season, but that people would be complaining or upset because the team was only 8-2?
No matter what happens the rest of the season, the team is bowl-bound. Again.
Remember the dark years when the Cougars could barely win a game?
The Cougars are nationally relevant again. And they should be for several years to come.