Perhaps it was playing before a record crowd crammed inside of TDECU Stadium. Maybe it was playing a 8-1 Memphis football team that was the best opponent the University of Houston had faced the entire season. It could be as simple as sideline guests JJ Watt and DeAndre Hopkins contaminating the Cougars with the crapiness of the Houston Texans.
No matter the reason, for the first 29 minutes of the Saturday night’s game, the Cougars weren't playing like an undefeated college football team. Down 20-0, having gained just 24 yards on offense with only four first downs for the game, the Cougars appeared dead in the water. Then quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. was knocked out of the game, and under backup Kyle Postma, the offense sprang to life, scoring on a 30-yard pass from Postma to Linell Bonner just before the half.
Still the Cougars were down 34-14 with 14 minutes remaining in the game and hopes of the perfect season, the conference title, and a New Year’s Bowl were rapidly falling away. Of the 282 teams that have trailed by at least 20 points in the fourth quarter, none have come back to the win, and UH was positioned to become number 283. But as the clock reached zero, after the 48-yard field goal attempt of Memphis’ Jake Elliott went wide right, the Cougars were the somewhat miraculous 35-34 victors to go 10-0 on the season. (See our slideshow of photos from the game here.)
“It’s indescribable, honestly,” said Postma, who was 21-for-33 for 236 yards and a TD (while rushing for 49 yards and another TD). “I still don’t even know how to put this all into words. It’s crazy just coming out and being able to play for my brothers. Just making plays out there on the field. When I’m out there scrambling and Demarcus Ayers is getting wide-open, being able to drop the ball off to him, and let him make the play. Defense is going out there and gets the ball. Elandon Roberts [interception to put UH in scoring territory]. Just putting us in a winning situation. It’s just crazy. I don’t even know what to say honestly.”
It’s difficult to really state just why the Cougars were able to pull off the win. The offense finally began clicking when Postma replaced the injured Ward. The Cougars finally started gaining yards, getting first downs, and eating up some clock. That let the defense, which was on the field for 20:29 of the first half, get some rest, and in turn, that put pressure on the Memphis defense to stop a UH defense which was finally operating and let a rested UH defense attack a Memphis offense.
The opportunistic defense forced two turnovers in the fourth quarter and kept Memphis unbalanced. Operating from good field position and with the record crowd of 42,159 primed to explode, the Cougars took over. Kenneth Farrow rushed for a 10-yard TD, Javin Webb had the 1-yard rush, and with 4:00 left on the clock, Postma drove the team 77 yards, completing three passes for 31 yards, and rushing three times for 31 yards, with his final run being the seven yard TD run that gave UH its first lead of the night with 1:27 left on the clock.
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“I didn’t want to win it that way; I can tell you that,” head coach Tom Herman said. “I would rather it have been 47-0. What an unbelievable atmosphere tonight. I want to publicly thank our students, not just for tonight, but each and every week regardless of opponent; 6,000-8,000 strong. Cheering their tails off. They’ve taken a lot of ownership in this team. The city of Houston, the casual fan, I’m sure there were a lot of them here tonight. Hopefully they didn’t leave after the first quarter. We do appreciate that. [Memphis] had a bunch of false start penalties. The atmosphere there was truly a home field advantage here tonight.”
It was probably a game the Cougars should have lost. It was definitely a game that, in recent years past, the Cougars would have lost. But Herman’s got this team believing that it can do anything. And it’s a team that’s dealt with lots of adversity this season — the offensive line has been hit by injury after injury, Postma started the season as a back-up wide receiver, key contributors on defense were missing this game because of injury, the receiver and running back cops are decimated by injury, and yet the Cougars found a way to pull out the win, go to 10-0 on the season. And yet all that matters for Herman is winning the conference title.
“If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, I don’t understand the college football rankings and why they have them so early, because there’s so much football left to be played,” Herman said. “If you get caught up in that, then you’re probably doing yourself a disservice as a team. We don’t care. We don’t talk about them. They matter none to us, because we know that if we win our conference championship, then we’re going to play in a New Year’s Day bowl game. Again, our goal was not to be 10-0 after 10 weeks. We never set out to do that. Our goal was to win our conference, and by winning tonight we’ve taken one step further on our journey.”
Despite it all, the Cougars have yet to lock up the conference title. Houston still has to go on the road and defeat UConn next Saturday then it ends the season hosting division foe Navy, a 8-1 squad that can take the Cougars spot in the AAC title game should it defeat UH. The Cougars are primed to play in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, but the team’s got to keep winning for that to happen.