The Houston Cougars have gotten the reputation, undeserved or not, of being a soft, finesse football team. When you pass the football, when you play the spread and go with one-back backfields, that can happen.
The Cougar players don't like this reputation. The coaching staff used this to their advantage last week, pushing at the chip on their shoulders as the team powered to a win over UTEP by way of the running game. A running game, by the way, that was being stressed on the first drive of the game and not just after Case Keenum was injured in the third quarter.
The coaches say that the offense is what the offense is. If the passing game isn't working, then, as Kevin Sumlin has said over and over, he's got a group of running backs who can run the football. But until a team actually does run the football against a big, supposedly physical team, then nobody believes it.
People believe that the Cougars can operate a physical, power running game now.
"What we did on the ground last week demonstrates that we're a balanced offense and that we have the capability of doing both things as far as throwing the football and running the football....Our guys really met the challenge," co-offensive coordinator Jason Phillips said on Tuesday. "We challenged them last week to be physical in front, and they met that challenge. And our running backs did a great job of getting the ball and getting positive yards."
The key to the running game, if you ask Bryce Beall, is that he received excellent blocking from his offensive line and his wide receivers. The offensive line and the receivers said that their blocking would have been useless without the abilities of Beall and fellow running back Michael Hayes to hit the holes and break tackles.
"He ran exceptionally well, to see the holes," right tackle Chris Thompson said of Beall. "Like I said, the offensive line, the brick squad here, we just come out, get our hard hat every day, and go to work. We've been tying to open holes here for some time now, and we've got some guys who are really hitting the holes and taking advantage, and we appreciate them running for us as much they appreciate us blocking up front."
The physical play of the line is not unexpected, reputation of softness or not. But it's the willingness and eagerness of the receivers to get down and block that is perhaps the unexpected thing about the UH offense this season. And receiver James Cleveland says the receivers came into this season with a mindset of focusing on blocking.
"We worked extremely hard in the off-season working on our blocking and all during camp," Cleveland said Tuesday. "We actually made that the focus of our competition instead of yards and catches and touchdowns and whatnot. We're going to see who had the most big blocks, the most blocks to score. That'll be the champion of the week, so to speak. Every victory that we accumulate, we'll have a blocking champion of the week, or whatnot."
And for a team known for a high-octane passing game and having three receivers who each went for over 1,000 receiving yards last season, the accolades from that passing game don't really matter.
"If our backs continue running like that, we can run the ball more than we throw every game if we win them all," Cleveland said.
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As for tomorrow night's game with 0-2 UCLA, the players and coaches all say to not be fooled by UCLA's record. The game will be tough, it will be physical, and the Bruins will be out to prove a point in front of their fans at the Rose Bowl. Thompson says that record doesn't speak to the ability of the UCLA players that he's seen on film.
And the players are also clear that defeating a major conference team in one of college football's Mecca's will be nothing more than just another win.
"Winning, period, legitimizes anything," Thompson says. "If you lose, it doesn't legitimize nothing but that you're a loser. Not per se, but I think that any win against any team is what we're working for, and the 12 teams on our schedule is what we're really aiming for, and the next game is UCLA, so that's what we're working on."
MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: The Cougars announced that final season ticket totals for the season were 11,477 as opposed to 6,300 for last season. That increase of 5,177 was the largest percentage increase in the NCAA for this season....There truly is no word as to Case Keenum's status, but Jason Phillips stated that the offense wouldn't change if Cotton Turner is the quarterback. Chris Thompson said his job is the same no matter who is in the game, and James Cleveland says that Turner can do anything Keenum can do....Houston officials have announced that tomorrow's game will now be simulcast on 790 KBME and 99.1 KODA. For those tired of the radio follies, the game will also be available on Fox Sports Houston....Bryce Beall is looking forward to the game because of how big the Rose Bowl is and how loud it should be. "So this is a good opportunity to see how our team competes on the road," he said. "We probably won't have a loud snap count. It's probably going to be hard communicating. So it's going to be good to see how we do on our first true road game."