While the BCS chatter surrounding the University of Houston Cougars program has become increasingly louder, head coach Kevin Sumlin has taken an interesting approach to muting the noise engulfing his team.
Sumlin made a promise to the Cougars that isn’t entirely in his control.
“I’ve told these guys, `If you win, you will not be ignored,” he said.
If Saturday was any indication then Sumlin has never spoke truer words. With the 11-ranked Cougars standing as one of the last two remaining undefeated teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, they are finally getting some attention. ESPN’s F-bomb dropping GameDay crew rolled into town and parked in front of Robertson Stadium from the early morning hours to late night Saturday.
Now how is that for a little national love?
Box Score: UH 37, SMU 7
Even a couple of national media writers ventured into Third Ward to witness the Cougars and their record-shattering quarterback Case Keenum torch SMU. Only problem is the blistering offense that is prone to put 70-plus points up and averages better than 600 yards per game didn’t quite show up in UH’s 37-7 win over Mustangs on Saturday afternoon.
In an unexpected twist, it was the Cougars non-descript defense that carried the day in a game in which SMU was in striking distance at 23-7 as late as midway through the fourth quarter. The UH defense suffocated the SMU offense and made big stops all afternoon to give the offense a chance to finally open it up at the end.
This wasn’t at all what we’ve come to expect out of the explosive Cougars who score touchdowns at a clip. But with a huge showdown of two 7-0 Conference USA teams on the horizon when Houston heads to Tulsa on Friday and with BCS dreams still a possibility, winning a relatively tight game may serve the Cougs well down the line.
“We’ve improved defensively. We’re not anywhere near where we want to be but I certainly think that improvement has given us some confidence to play in those situations,” said Sumlin, whose team improved 11-0 overall heading into Friday’s regular-season finale. “It was good for us to be in a game like that going to Tulsa.
“In the last five or six weeks our guys have been standing on sideline in the third quarter. So for them to play a whole game and really push themselves and stress a little bit (is good) because what we want to accomplish these next few weeks are championship weeks.”
UH is certainly playing like a championship team. The question is are the Cougars a team worthy of a Bowl Championship Series bowl or are they just a C-USA Championship team destined for the Liberty Bowl?
A strong case could be made with impressive a win on the road against an impressive opponent on Friday night followed by a top-notch performance in the conference championship game. Let’s face it, UH needs all the help it can in bolster its case for a BCS bowl because the body of work which includes needing a huge comeback against Louisiana Tech and a weak strength of schedule to this point still leaves a lot to be desired.
It also doesn’t help that the Cougars started the season out of Top 25 so they are having to come from a long ways to get into the Top 10 where non-automatic qualifiers can get notice for BCS consideration.
“I’m hoping we made a pretty good case,” said Keenum, who added the NCAA all-time completions record Saturday to his assault on the record book. “That’s the only thing we can do because we can’t go out there and argue our case on different things. Our way of talking is just by the way we play.
“I hope people don’t make up their minds about us before they watch us play and if they watch us play, I hope they are impressed. That’s the only way we can get respect and change people’s mind on how we play. That’s 60 minutes on Saturday and that’s not very much time.”
The Cougars may have disappointed some and impressed others with the manner in which they won Saturday in front of a Roberston Stadium-record crowd of 32,207. They stumbled often on offense, settling for field goals where they are accustomed to scoring touchdowns.
The game didn’t seem out of whack until 6:17 when Keenum uncharacteristically scrambled for a 16-yard touchdown that gave UH a 30-7 lead. The Cougars scored just four touchdowns on the night while having to settle for three Matt Hogan field goals.
This certainly wasn’t the performance you expect from a team has put up 73 points twice in its previous three games heading into Saturday.
“I think our fans and really our players get a little jittery if we are not scoring every time we have the ball,” Sumlin said. “Honestly we kind of guard against that. That’s why I said, `Just be patient and we will be alright, particularly if our defense plays like that.’”
The unheralded unit saved the day, coming up with two big turnovers, four sacks while holding SMU to just 24 yards rushing on 26 carries for the day.
“It was awesome. That was the best defense I’ve seen played here,” said Keenum, a sixth-year senior who played his last regular-season game at Robertson Stadium on Saturday. “I know I haven’t been here as long as some people have been here but I’ve been here a while and that’s the best defense I’ve seen played here.
“Hats off to the defensive staff, (defensive coordinator Brian Stewart) and the defensive players. They made huge plays on third down, got us the ball back early. When we were just kicking field goals what they did was huge. No matter what we did they just kept going out there and making stops. The goal line stand, causing them to miss a field and Phillips interception, that’s huge. That’s big time. The defense played extremely well tonight and I was proud and very pumped to see that.”