The Houston Cougars might have lost 31-13 to the UCLA Bruins last week. And they might have lost quarterbacks Case Keenum and Cotton Turner for the season. But as they prepare for Saturday afternoon's home contest versus the Tulane Green Wave, the Cougars are out to prove a point.
They can win games without the magic of Case Keenum.
"We don't have any choice," head coach Kevin Sumlin said on Tuesday. "As I told our guys yesterday, we've got nine games. Our goals have not changed. Our goals are to win the conference championship. As I sat here [Monday], in this room, in front of our team, whether we won or lost last Saturday had no effect on that. Our goals are still the same, and those won't change. And our expectations won't change from our players. I think they understand that."
What the players understand is that this team now has one goal, but it's the same goal the team had coming into this season. Winning Conference USA.
"We failed last year in the conference championship, and our goal this year was to make sure we got there again and to win," said running back Bryce Beall. "So our goal is out there. We're just going to go take it day-by-day and know it's not going to be easy. But like I said, we've just got to elevate our game, that's all we're worried about right now.'
And by "elevating our game," Beall was speaking of himself, Michael Hayes, and the rest of the teams playmakers. Beall feels that this team has the talent to win games without Keenum as quarterback. But this isn't going to happen unless the team takes pressure off freshmen quarterbacks Terrance Broadway and David Piland. (It was announced Tuesday night that Broadway would be the starter for Saturday, but Piland will probably, at some point, see playing time as well.)
"I'm confident in them," Beall said of Broadway and Piland. "We've just got to make their job a lot easier. Case made our jobs a lot easier, now it's our time to make their jobs a lot easier. We've just got to go out there and be playmakers.'
With or without Keenum, the Cougars shouldn't have problems with Tulane (1-1) who, for years, have been one of the weaker teams in C-USA. But Sumlin and the players aren't buying into Tulane being an easy victory. Tulane has had an influx of talent and transfers to its defense, and head coach Bob Toledo has been changing up his standard offense.
"Coach Toledo's gone away from a traditional I-formation team to running more one back, the freshman running back [Orleans Darkwa] that's a good back," Sumlin said. "He'll be playing a couple of guys out there. They'll get in a little wildcat and do a couple of things that are different than he has done traditionally in the past. It will be a different game than it was last year."
Sumlin also warns that, no matter who is at quarterback, the fans should expect some growing pains. He and Beall have the utmost faith in both Broadway and Piland, but they are freshman, and both are still adjusting to the UH playbook.
"They're both talented, talented young guys. But they're young, and there are going to be growing pains with them both," Sumlin said. "I think that they're both capable of winning. That's why we brought them here. They're going to continue to develop. They're going to make mistakes, but we're going to have to manage a little bit of that as coaches and figure out what we're going to do. But they're comfortable in our system. They're comfortable with how we do things."
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And Beall's got a message for the Cougar faithful. There's nothing to worry about. The team is going to make this work, and somehow, the season is going to turn out just fine. He and the rest of the team are going to elevate their play and that elevation of play will lessen the growing pains for Broadway and Piland.
"Keep coming," Beall says. "We're going to be all right. We're going to go out there and play hard. We're going to fine. Don't stop coming. We're going to be all right."
And their first stop towards being all right, their first stop towards winning that C-USA title comes this weekend. If everybody steps up, if everybody executes the game plan, if Beall helps to make things easy for his quarterbacks, then the Cougars shouldn't have any problems on Saturday.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES: Saturday's game is at 2:30 p.m. at Robertson Stadium, and it will be televised on CBS College Sports....The Cougars have won their last eight games against Tulane, and they lead the all-time series 11-4....The Cougars have a 17-game winning streak at Robertson Stadium, which is the longest home winning streak in school history. Their last home loss was a 37-35 loss to East Carolina on September 29, 2007....With either Broadway or Piland getting the start, the Cougars will see their first start by a true freshman QB since Kevin Kolb got the start against Rice in 2003.