The Midway Point

Wha' happened? The Cougars roared to a 4-0 mark, rolled up 509 yards in a 34-25 win over a Big 12 opponent, one whose first-team defense had not been scored on in three games, and restored the fans' enthusiasm in front of the third largest crowd ever at renovated Robertson Stadium.

Wha' happened? The Cougars roared to a 4-0 mark, rolled up 509 yards in a 34-25 win over a Big 12 opponent, one whose first-team defense had not been scored on in three games, and restored the fans' enthusiasm in front of the third largest crowd ever at renovated Robertson Stadium. In their three previous contests, the Coogs tangled with lesser opponents, including Rice, Tulane, and Division I-AA Grambling. Even so, they took care of business. The Rice score was closer than Cougar fans liked, but some hoped it would give them the confidence to come back and win close games later in the season. And Rice may no longer be a patsy; a solid showing at UCLA and a spanking of Army, a team that had beaten Baylor and had come within an eyelash of defeating Texas A&M in front of a predominantly home crowd in San Antonio, indicate the Owls are on the road to recovery. After four games, UH was ranked #3 in the nation in offense and seemed unstoppable. A rumor surfaced that the punter, Justin Laird, asked Coach Briles if he could skip a game to go back to his dorm and study for a test; he didn't feel he'd be needed anyway. And while the defense lapsed in the second quarter against Rice, and late against Grambling when third-teamers were playing, the Cougars had been doing a pretty fair job of shutting teams down; they're still giving up only 21 points per game. Miami was next, but while Cougar fans hoped for a victory, most realized that beating a team with the kind of athletes UM has, especially in the Orange Bowl, may be too much to ask; it was, but the Cougars came oh so close. A terrible call, a Cougar fumble in the red zone, and a dropped pass that likely would have gone for six were key in the one-point loss. So, most fans were mildly disappointed, but realized that the team had played a traditional power on the road to within a point, and that a sure win against U-LA would get them to 5-1, the mark most were shooting for at the midway point.

But a sad thing happened on the way to the Top 25; inexplicably, U-LA won. After suffering through some 15 years of futility, many Cougar fans had come to believe the UH Athletic Department was modeled on a blueprint of one-step-forward, two-steps-back. But after two great showings against OSU and UM, partisans began to wonder if maybe somehow the magic had returned to Cullen Boulevard. But U-LA made the usual one step forward, two steps back look like the steps one would witness at Golden Age Manor. No, this was, with apologies to Neil Armstrong, more a case of two big steps for a team, one giant leap backward for a program. Attendance was improving, the Cougars were getting Top 25 votes, and even the hated Chronicle was giving UH good press. The question now? Did that one game ruin the season, or can the Cougars bounce back?

UH is 4-2 at the halfway mark, which makes a 10-2 kind of season a bit like an episode of Mission Impossible. The program can't climb to the top of the non-BCS ladder with minor bowls, but neither do those bowls put them at the bottom. The truth is very few non-BCS teams make three bowls in four years, regardless of how minor those bowls are, (USM was in the New Orleans for two consecutive years, and they're still considered one of the better non-BCS programs), so if UH does go bowling somewhere, they'd have to be considered maybe a rung below the Boises, BYUs, and TCUs. What is so discouraging for Cougar fans is that it looked as if UH were finally ready to ascend to the top of the stairs, knock on the door to the room in which the non-BCS elites were having their party, and step inside, maybe even as a disheveled, old toad was hopping out and muttering something about how stupid it was to "go west." Instead, the Coogs now face a situation in which they may be hard-pressed to make any bowl, much less the Liberty.

One problem that cannot be overlooked is the devastating injuries suffered by the squad this season. Sure, all teams have injuries. But UH has been decimated, and it's not so much the number of players, though some 10 key players missing two or more games doesn't help, as it is that the injuries have all seemed to hit one position or an especially important player. Sir Vincent Rogers tore ligaments and had vascular damage done against OSU. He was the linchpin of the Coogs' offensive line, no question about it. He was a sound pass blocker, and he could be counted on to get a push when the Cougars ran the ball. He's out for the season. Before he was hurt, two more of the Cougars' top four offensive tackles were lost for the year, Mark Kimmey, who will not play football again, and Sebastian Vollmer, who had such potential at 6-8, 290 that the coaches thought he might take over at left tackle, allow Rogers to play right tackle, and possibly move Dustin Dickinson to guard. So when Rogers went down, the coaches were in a pickle. They moved Jeff Akeroyd, a solid run blocker, but not the best pass protector to left tackle, and made reserve Mike Bloesch the starter at left guard. Now right guard Byron Alfred, arguably the Coogs' best offensive lineman after Rogers, is out for a couple of weeks. When it rains, it pours. So the coaches will try to find the right reserves to patch together an offensive line that will hopefully give Kolb some time to throw and open a few seams for Jackie Battle and Roshawn Pope. That won't be an easy task, especially going to "The Rock" this weekend for a tilt with always tough Southern Miss, which ranks first in C-USA in scoring defense, giving up only 17 points per game.

This isn't a preview of the USM game; however, if the U-LA game wasn't the pivotal game of the season, this one may be. How UH reacts to adversity will test the team's character and resolve. If they come out dispirited and play without the kind of zeal they will need to win a tough conference road game, the team that at one time looked like the fastest horse in the race may do well to get a rematch with U-LA in the New Orleans Bowl. On the other hand, if they come out growling and play as if this is the biggest game of the season (and at this point, it is), then, assuming they win, they'll be 3-0 in conference after passing their toughest road test, and they'll have the other contenders in their division at Robertson. So, this one's a "really big shew."

The Cougars continue to shred defenses. They rank first in the conference in both total and scoring offense, and they are #11 nationally in total offense. Kevin Kolb's best throw all season was tossing his previous years' miscues into a trash can. He is playing as well as any UH quarterback at least since David Klingler. And Kolb doesn't have a three-deep offensive line filled with 6-5, 300 pound fifth-year seniors; he has a patchwork group filled with freshmen, sophomores, and linemen really playing out of position. His passing has been exceptional. The critical touchdown pass to Biren Ealy on third and goal at the seven against OSU was as fine a throw as has been made in Robertson Stadium. He's almost always on the money with the deep ball. If he has any fault as a passer, he may sometimes lack the touch needed on shorter throws. But that may often be because of pressure or a defensive back closing on the receiver. He provides excellent leadership, he picks up yardage on the ground when teams have go to man coverage, he creates time for himself when there is none, and he reads defenses like a primer. He is easily the highest rated passer in C-USA. He has completed 70% of his passes, thrown 14 TD passes, averages 293 yards per game through the air, leads C-USA in total offense, and, get this, he has thrown a grand total of one interception all season. Neither Coach Briles nor Cougar fans could ask for anymore from this outstanding representative of the University of Houston. Hopefully, the team will do well enough to get him at least some Heisman consideration. A Liberty Bowl appearance might give him an outside chance. If he were at USC or Notre Dame, he'd be among the favorites.

As many UH fans thought, the receiving corps has been outstanding. This year, there are so many weapons that the ball has been spread more evenly, making it tougher for defenses to double an all-conference player such as Vince Marshall or a deep threat like Donnie Avery. Anthony Alridge gives the Coogs another burner. And Jeron Harvey and Biren Ealy complement them perfectly with their size and skills as possession receivers. Those screens seem so much more effective this year because teams can no longer abandon the middle, and partly because instead of smurfs and guys with bum shoulders, the Coogs have some 200+ pounders out there blocking cornerbacks. There have been some mistakes. If not for drops, Kolb's completion rate would, incredibly, be somewhere between 75-80%. And Cougar receivers must hold on to the ball. A costly fumble proved too much to overcome against U-LA, and the Cougars got lucky on a reversed fumble against OSU, so UH receivers need to wrap up when contact is coming. If they need an example, they need only look to tight end Mark Hafner, who resembles a 90s Nebraska fullback holding the ball like his life savings as he thunders down the field, bowling over would-be tacklers. And Rodney Hannah, all 6-8, 260 pounds of him, gives the Coogs, literally, a big receiving threat at tight end. He could develop even more as the season progresses. It will be interesting to see how much the staff gets him involved the next six games. Seeing him with the ball in open field is a sight for Cougar eyes. If Every position on the team were as talented as quarterback and receiver, Cougar fans could start making their New Year's Eve reservations in Memphis today.

The running game has been successful when it has been used, though some Cougar fans think it has gotten short-shrift. Maybe they're right, maybe not. Fans are not privy to what coaches see in the press box. UH is not Texas Tech, nor are the Cougars the run-n-shoot teams of old. Coach Briles believes in a more balanced attack, but UH is still more of a passing team. Even so, the pass-to-run ratio should be heavily skewed if UH neglects the running game to any great extent. The statistics don't back that up. The Cougars have thrown 204 passes; they have run the ball 187 times. Among C-USA running backs who have played in five games, Jackie Battle ranks sixth in carries, and several of the backs ahead of him, Derrick Fletcher at USM and Ahmad Bradshaw, for example, are feature backs in heavily run-oriented offenses; Pope and Alridge also occasionally carry the mail. But running the ball does often shorten the game, and it may not be a bad idea when a team gets a 21-point lead, especially when they have a workhorse like Battle and a talented, quick back in Roshawn Pope for a change of pace. One wonders, however, if Briles did do that if other fans wouldn't be claiming he doesn't have a killer instinct. The Cougars are fifth in C-USA in rushing yards per game, and fourth in yards per carry. The 2006 Coogs won't be running student-body left or right, nor, most likely, will the 2026 Coogs, but they aren't exactly at the bottom of the conference rankings, and they do have one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Tough to watch someone with that kind of talent stand in the backfield and watch plays unfold. The running game has been effective and arguably could be even more so, at least if the big guys up front were healthy. For it to work with a makeshift offensive line, Coach Briles will have to call traps, counters, and misdirection. Going straight at some solid defensive lines may not be the wisest course of action. Of course, UH could do most anything it wanted offensively if the starters in the line were all healthy.

But, of course, they're not. An offensive line is not a ragtag collection of large college athletes. It is a unit, and the more cohesive the better. To develop talent, especially at a C-USA school, most offensive linemen need several years in the program to develop strength. To jell as a unit, an offensive line needs to play together. Lose one member, and it affects the group. Lose two or more and a team has a problem. Frankly, the Cougars have been have been ravaged in the offensive line. Their two best, arguably, will be out of the USM game. One starter will not be at 100%, and one will be starting the first game of his college career. Major changes like that damage a line's effectiveness. It's a shame because most observers saw the offensive line as the question mark on offense, but thought it could be answered in the affirmative if injuries were avoided. Instead, injuries have been the order of the day. UH would have very likely had one of the top 10 offenses in the nation if their starting five up front would have stayed healthy. With such a piecemeal group, fans can probably count on motion and holding penalties. It's just hard to say how well the newcomers will respond to such a challenge.

If the Coogs don't reach their goals, and the onus doesn't fall on the offensive line, the unit most likely not to succeed will be the defense. The 3-4 that Alan Weddell helped implement last year and now runs has been a little Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-like. At times, the Cougars have looked like the famous Mad Dogs of old. The defense stuffed the birds in the second half at Rice, allowing a measly 45 total yards. Tulane scored seven points and gained 224 yards, and in the first three quarters (UH had third-teamers in by the fourth), Grambling only managed 10 points and some 200 yards. Even against Miami, UH surrendered only 14 points, though it seemed as if some of that was Miami's offensive ineptitude. Oklahoma State put up 446 yards, but only scored 25. The Cougars did stop them twice near the goal line. Like so much else, what was especially disappointing was the U-LA game. The defense gave up 31 points, 415 yards, and acted as if they were only allowed to tackle beyond the first-down marker on third-down plays. They looked more like sad than mad dogs. So their play is critical to the rest of the season and could determine the USM game and just how far UH can go.

The defense has been solid in some areas. With Marquay Love having an outstanding year, teams haven't had much luck running between the tackles. Where opponents have found space is just outside the tackle, and backs often head for the sideline to pick up additional yards. So what's going on with that? One problem is that the Cougars' best run-stuffer at OLB, 245-pound Scott Lee, has been hurt—yeah, him, too. So UH is left with players in the 225-pound range (James Francis is more like 215) to take on 250-pound tight ends and protect the flanks. And compounding the problem is the fact that the Cougar cornerbacks are 185 and 170; moreover, the inside linebackers, Trent Allen and Cody Lubojasky, do a good job of keeping backs from popping through the middle, but they're not speed guys and don't always get outside quickly enough. So Coach Weddell needs to find a way to address that problem because if he doesn't, teams will be picking up huge chunks of yardage outside most every game. Another area where fans should see more improvement is in deep coverage. The Coogs got burned a few times early, but with Will Gulley back and Kenneth Fontenette, who is playing extremely well, at safety, chances are that won't be happening much, if at all.

But anyone who's watched the UH defense knows what the major problem is: the pass rush. The Coogs hardly have one. Why not? Hard to be sure but here are some possibilities: One, the Cougars have only three down linemen in their pass rush, and only one of them, Ell Ash, has gotten any penetration. Ash has only played some three games at defensive end in his college career. At least he should improve as the season progresses. But Love, who is being double-teamed, and Hunt, who is fast but also small and has trouble getting around the wide-bodies at left tackle, haven't generated much pressure. The inside linebackers, as mentioned, are not fast. Guards can pick them up without much problem. And the outside linebackers don't have the size to knock over fullbacks laying in wait for them. The best solution may be to disguise blitzes better. That's tough against experienced quarterbacks, but the only one who would seem to be adept at reading a blitz, aside from Kolb, would be Tulsa's Smith and maybe Palmer at UTEP. Whatever the case, with the offense depleted because of injuries, the defense absolutely has to step up. Anymore of these games where opponents score 30+ and gain over 400 yards, and the Coogs could very well be home for the holidays this bowl season.

One pleasant surprise has been special teams. The Cougars aren't Virginia Tech, and they've made a few mistakes, but all in all, Coach Fitzpatrick has the special teams playing much better. Some of these remaining C-USA games could very well come down to a late field goal or a long return. At a minimum, the Coogs look as if they'll be able to hold their own on special teams. UH is second in the league in kickoff returns, fourth in kickoff coverage, and fifth in punt returns. UH has connected on six of nine field goal attempts, and is perfect on extra points. On the other hand, punting hasn't improved. The net punting average isn't much over 30 yards. Other bugaboos that Cougar fans wanted to see improved this year were penalties and red-zone offense. UH has fewer penalties than any league team that has played six games, and rank fourth overall in fewest yards penalized per game. And UH is third in C-USA in red-zone offense, converting 89% of their deep drives into points.

So, the Cougars are 4-2 at the halfway point. If they were 5-1 as fans expected after Miami, the USM game would be important but not as critical as it seems, not just in terms of the conference race (UH could still win its division with a loss at USM), but because the game is likely to determine the Cougars' mentality for the rest of the season. If they win, they have renewed hope, practices are sharper, they have confidence again, and the wind is at their backs. But if they lose, the proverbial tents may start folding. One heartbreaking, one-point setback, followed by a stunning upset, and then a loss in a game they know could determine whether they have a shot at the C-USA title, which is their goal, may be too much to withstand. If the major goal is out of reach with five games left to play, well, that's a tough slog emotionally. And the injuries are not an excuse. Sometimes teams get hit especially hard by them, and only programs such as USC and Texas have a chance to absorb such losses without suffering at some major drop-off. But if UH wins, they will be 3-0 and their goal is still within reach, they'll have three consecutive home games in a weak league, and just maybe the Cougars could still realize their dream of winning the conference championship and the Liberty Bowl.

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