Halloween is certainly a fitting holiday for University of Houston coaches, players, and fans, who must think 2008 has been the Season of the Witch. The Cougars have been hit with everything but the kitchen sink--and there's a rumor one smashed into the AAC when Ike blew through--after experiencing the worst natural disaster in Houston history, suffering season-ending injuries to key personnel, and experiencing the old saying, "If it weren‘t for bad luck, I wouldn‘t have any luck at all." There's still four games to go, and anything's possible, but the Cougars have suffered so many setbacks that, at this point, finishing at .500 and getting to a minor bowl may just be a real accomplishment for the players--the ones still standing anyway--and the coaches.
UH fans will likely look back on 2008 as the season that could have been. Everything seemed to be in place for an eight or nine win campaign. The Cougars had a savvy, experienced quarterback, a strong offensive line, a go-to receiver in Mark Hafner, and a defense that returned most of the starters from the ‘07 unit that ranked first in C-USA. And there was hope for better special teams play with a punter who began to launch rockets toward the end of last season and a kicker who was named all-conference in ‘06. The schedule also seemed auspicious. Three of four non-conference games looked very winnable, and divisional rivals Tulsa and UTEP were coming to Robertson.
And, sure enough, UH crushed Southern in the Coogs' opener, and then led Oklahoma State, a two-touchdown favorite and a team presently ranked in the Top 10, at the half before Cowboy receiver Dez Bryant did his best imitation of another Cowboy, Terrell Owens, and the guys in orange and black pulled away. But the Cougars put up 37 points in that game, more than Texas or Missouri scored later in the season against OSU. So Cougar fans had reason for optimism after that game.
And then a witch doctor obtained a voodoo Shasta doll, and started sticking it with pins. In addition, a monstrous storm with a maw ready to swallow the Galveston-Houston area was seething in the Gulf. Hurricane Ike discombobulated everything for the Cougars. Rather than play a decent but beatable Air Force team at Robertson, UH had to reschedule the game for 10 AM in Dallas in the kind of weather that clearly benefited a running team like AFA over one that averages almost 50 passes a game. So without that three-point home-field advantage and playing in poor conditions, UH lost by three. And then the Cougars had to live out of their collective suitcase while also worrying about family and friends. That took a toll on preparations for the upcoming road contest against Colorado State, a decent team that now sits at .500 overall and 2-2 in the MWC. The Cougars got off to what has become a characteristic slow start, but came roaring back and moved inside the red zone with time expiring in the game. But a CSU interception with two seconds remaining meant another heartbreaking loss for the Coogs, again by three points. So what would have been a tasty treat for UH, a 3-1 non-conference record, turned into a nasty trick, a scary 1-3.
The Cougars then traveled yet again, this time to play the Pirates of East Carolina. But on this day, the ghosts that had been haunting the Coogs were exorcised. UH made the then 23rd ranked Buccaneers walk the plank, winning 41-21 and racking up 621 yards. It was as if the Cougars had made it through the night in a haunted house and come out to a sunny, beautiful day. Before the season, most observers had chalked up the East Carolina game as a loss, understandably so since they were favored in the East, had beaten UH in '07, and the game was in Greenville. So despite the mediocre overall 2-3 record, the Cougars had started conference play with a win in what some thought would be their toughest league game. Sure, Tulsa was good, but they weren't a Top 25 program at that point, and since they were coming to Robertson, the Golden Hurricanes seemed more like a tropical storm.
Next up was UAB. Finally another home game! The Cougars didn't show up for the first half, and the Blazers raced to a 17-3 lead. Losing at home to the doormat of C-USA, much less a team whose offensive coordinator is Mr. Draw Play himself, former UH coach Kim Helton, would have been a nightmare on Cullen Boulevard. But Case Keenum and the offense woke up, scoring 42 unanswered points in the second half to win going away, 45-20.
But whether it was Marie LaVeau, Morgan le Fay, Samantha Stevens, or Sabrina the Teenage Witch, someone was still poking pins in that Shasta doll. The strength of this year's team was the offensive line, and the line's linchpin was Sir Vincent Rogers, a 320-pound mauler, who could be counted on for tough yards; he was every running back's favorite teammate. Rogers tragically suffered a season-ending knee injury, which was doubly worse since he had sat out ‘07 rehabilitating torn ligaments in his leg. His loss not only was a blow to the line and the offense, it was a blow to team morale. The players saw him as "the man" up front. A fixture in the defensive line, Ell Ash, was also injured early and has yet to return. Starting right guard Chris Thompson went down as well, and is expected to miss some three games. And then to make matters even worse, Rogers' backup, Josh Bell, was hurt against Marshall. Additionally, Patrick Edwards, the receiver who was developing into the most reliable in a group of inexperienced wideouts, was lost for the year when he ran into a steel cart at the back of the Marshall end zone. Key players such as Cody Lubojasky, Kenneth Fontenette, and Ernest Miller have also missed time with injuries. We're now down to slim pickins, folks. UH went into the season with enough front line talent to challenge for the conference title. But the Cougars aren't deep as a wishing well. The team doesn't have the depth to withstand key injuries, and it's been hit with a rash of them.
Still, thanks largely to Case Keenum's cool hand, the Cougars snuck out of Dallas with a heart-stopping win over SMU, and were sitting pretty at 3-0 in conference while improving the overall record to 4-3. Then disaster struck. Perhaps the late comeback against a one-win SMU team should have been a signal that there was a problem. The next game was at Marshall, which seemed like a team UH could thump given that the Thundering Herd had lost to UAB. But the voodoo doll was now filled with pins. The losses in the offensive line began to show. Keenum had a swarm of Marshall defenders on him as soon as he dropped back into the pocket. The Cougars could only muster three points in the first half. Given the second-half explosion against UAB, there was reason for hope in the second half, but the one time the Coogs did get things rolling, they got down to the one yard line before being jinxed and fumbling a handoff, which was returned by Marshall deep into UH territory and effectively sealed the Coogs' fate.
Now with Tulsa looking like world-beaters, and Rice fielding what may be their best team in years, UH may do well to finish what was a very promising season at 6-6 and hope there is a bowl slot left for them. There should be. C-USA has six bowl tie-ins, and the league only has three teams with winning records. But this season could have been 9-3, conceivably even 10-2, without a hurricane, a plague of injuries, and a couple of game-changing bad breaks. 2008--must be the Season of the Witch.