Houston has a problem. Well, they actually have several issues and it seems that the team that was once looking like a lock for a New Year’s bowl is now struggling to keep its head above water heading into the home stretch of the season. The Cougars opened up the season with a five game win streak that began with a very convincing upset win over Oklahoma that had the entire country buzzing about head coach Tom Herman and is squad.
Four weeks ago, the Cougars were able to get their revenge against UConn after being upset by the Huskies last year on the road, but the following weekend against Navy is where things started to snowball a bit on the Cougars. Navy is always a tough matchup for any team that they face each week due to the fact that they run a style of offense that many teams do not run in this day and age of football. Preparing for a triple option offense like Navy’s is incredibly difficult because it stresses assignment football and it is often hard to duplicate with a scout team in practice. We’ve heard of coaches getting creative with their scout team personnel as they try to give their teams the most realistic looks as possible in practice, but trying to mimic this type of offense and give a good look in a week’s time is very difficult.
When the game rolled around, Navy’s offense went right to work and was able to have great success against a Cougar defense that had not allowed more than 23 points in a game. The Midshipmen dominated the time of possession, forced two Greg Ward Jr. turnovers that included a pick six, and they also were able to force a safety. While this loss was certainly disappointing for Houston, I think it can be justified and even be understandable to a certain extent. Navy is now ranked inside the top 25 at #22 and is in a position to earn a berth into the conference championship game, so they are playing some good football right now.
The bigger red flags for me are how the following two weeks since the Navy game have played out for the Cougars. Every team in America is going to have adversity hit them at one point or another, but it is how each team responds to adversity that separates the good teams from the average and the bad ones. With Tulsa coming into town, the Cougars had a chance to get back on track and get their confidence and swag back, but after a quick start against the Golden Hurricanes they suddenly found themselves in another dog fight. This dog fight would go right down to the wire and the game was actually decided on a very questionable call that went in the favor of the Cougars. Now fast forward to this past weekend, and the Cougars are on the road against their in state and conference rival SMU, whom they were three touchdown favorites over. The Mustangs came out and hit the Cougars in the mouth and they never recovered or regained their poise.
SMU was better in every phase of the game than the Cougars, and they looked like they were the only team that got off the bus ready to play on Saturday. While Houston’s defense has played good football the past season and a half, their calling card has been their offense and it was stuck in neutral the entire night. Greg Ward Jr. was terrorized all night long, as Houston’s battered offensive line allowed seven sacks to the SMU defense. The offense never really got going and the defense had a hard time slowing down the Ponies all night after they grabbed the early momentum and their confidence shot through the roof.
It has been interesting to see this downward trend from the Cougars after how well the team played in 2015 and the fast start they got off to in 2016. While obviously they were hurt some by some players leaving for the NFL, they are still plenty talented enough to win a lot of games this year. They are obviously dealing with some injuries in the trenches on both sides of the ball that has led to some issues, but it just seems like their confidence is shot and that they have lost their focus. One I will point to is that they may be a victim of their own success last year, as now they are the hunted rather than being the hunter. Last year they were the underdogs and they fed off of that, but as Herman said recently they are aware they will get every team’s best shot each week because of their recent success. You also have to wonder how much of a distraction Herman’s potential (and almost certain) departure from Houston is playing a factor in the locker room. With LSU firing Les Miles a few weeks into the season and Charlie Strong looking almost certain to be out at Texas, the rumor mill has been burning the midnight oil and it is practically impossible that the players aren’t hearing and being asked about it.
There is a lot of season left for the Cougars, so now is not the time to continue to hang their heads and allow things to continue to snowball. I don’t know what Coach Herman will be telling them this week, but with a matchup with Louisville still on the schedule they will have to circle the wagons in a hurry if they don’t want this season to completely get away from them down the home stretch.