Maybe a *little* leeway is warranted

Atlias Bell with the sack / Photo by Mario Puente


 
The Cougars and Pirates waited over five hours to kick off the game Saturday night due to non-stop lightning. Several thousand fans waited on the concourse, in their cars (shoutout Greg Propes!), or in the stadium parking garage for the game to start. I went home at the start of the delay but when I walked into the stadium at 8:15, I was pleasantly surprised at how many had stayed. Sadly, the game they were rewarded with was largely a dud.

But instead of ripping everyone, I think the players should get some leeway here. They were ready and amped up for 3 pm, they went through their routine Friday night and Saturday, ate their pregame meals, did walk-throughs, went to the stadium, got taped up and stretched, and had started drills when the delay began. So they sat in a locker room for hours with little to do other than stretching, doing homework, or playing on their phones. Then, they were given 30 minutes to get up and get mentally and physically prepared for the game. It’s hard to turn that on and off and back on again.

It sucks and that’s partially why the play was uneven and, at times, just flat awful and I’m willing to excuse them for that. Both Tune and ECU QB Holton Ahlers were not good and you have to allow that some of that was the weather delay. Tune missed throws that he hadn’t missed in more than a month and looked tentative like he did in the Tech game and during parts of last year.

I’m also willing to excuse the players for looking ahead to SMU. Winning teams, winning cultures know how to attack the game right in front of them week after week. But this program has not been a ‘winning’ program in years. Sure they won some games in 2017 and 2018 but they couldn’t sustain it and collapsed each year. ECU was a “trap” game and they just were not up for it the way should have been.

So for a team coming out of a 16-day break (Dana Holgorsen called it the longest break he’s ever had), facing a trap game, looking ahead to a (likely) chance to make the AAC title game with a win next week, and then waiting out a five+ hour rain delay, I’m willing to excuse some things.

But there are other things that aren’t excusable:

– The play calling. Wildcat on 3rd down three times? What are you trying to do here? When has a wildcat ever worked in the last 3 years? And the set with the TE and the RB? Oooof.

Or, with over 10 minutes to play and facing 3rd and 12 at the ECU 39, UH runs the ball and picks up 10 yards, setting up a manageable 4th and 2. Running it there tells everyone that you’re going for it on 4th down. But instead of rushing to the line to confuse the defense and get the yards, or just taking your time to make sure everyone was ready, Holgorsen runs the play clock down to 1 and takes a time out. With over 10 minutes to play, he’s worried about the clock on their side of the field. Why?

Immediately, I noticed Clayton Tune walk off the field and down the sideline to the bench. There was no way he was coming back onto the field for 4th down. There was no way the Cougars were going for it. Sure enough, the kick unit comes out to attempt a 46-yard field goal into the wind. And sure enough, it’s wide left. Dalton Witherspoon should have never been put in that spot.

But it’s the entire sequence that made no sense. To top it off, after running the clock, the timeout, and the FG attempt, UH’s next six offensive snaps were passing attempts. All came with the lead or tied and with over five minutes in the game. Shrugging emoji!

– The middle two quarters. UH ran 28 plays for 52 yards in quarters two and three. UH did score a TD in the 2nd quarter but that was off a turnover at the 32-yard line.

UH ran it 20 times in the 2nd and 3rd quarters for a total of -6 yards. True, much of that was from sacks. But other than sacks, UH had 15 rush attempts for 45 yards in those two quarters. The OL play has not gotten better with two new transfers and with stability. The blocking has to get better and those running backs need to fight for the tough yards.

– The inconsistencies. In the second quarter of the last two games, UH has run 32 plays for 97 yards (10 points on two short fields). In the two 1st quarters that proceeded them, the Coogs had 33 plays for 242 yards (24 points from offensive drives).

What happens in the media timeout after the first quarter that changes everything? It also happened in the Rice game (1st quarter: 17 points, 20 plays, 173 yards; 2nd quarter: 0 points, 10 plays, 3 yards).

– The penalties. 10 accepted penalties for 80 yards is brutally bad. ECU picked up three first downs via penalty including one on a costly 4th down defensive offsides.

Plenty more to say including a ton of numbers that are just cringeworthy. But I think fans should be willing to see the circumstances in totality and be willing to give this team a pass for this week. The play-calling? The decisions? Not so much.

At the end of the day, as bad as it has often looked, the team is 6-1. Yes, it’s against a horrendous schedule – the worst in school history. And it could all come apart as it did in 2018 and 2016 before that.

But it’s 6-1. If the effort and energy and execution are as bad in the SMU game as they were against ECU, then there are serious problems. But for now, I’m willing to call it an avalanche of unusual circumstances.


 

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