Despite allowing two 100-yard kickoff returns, the Houston Cougars moved to 8-1 Saturday night after a 54-42 win at USF. The team’s eighth-straight win put the Coogs in prime position for an AAC title game appearance and a shot at an NY6 Bowl.
Despite all that, UH fans seem hesitant to embrace this team fully. The Cougars have had their growing pains and troubles, to be sure, but week after week, they have done the one thing fans demand: they win the games. In a college football season of turmoil and non-stop upsets and only one dominant program, eight-straight wins are pretty impressive (even with the strength of schedule).
UH’s 2011 team had their warts but is beloved by fans despite them. That team was down 27 at Louisiana Tech before rallying to win. Then, two weeks later, they were down 14-0 early at UTEP before turning it around.
The 2015 team that won the AAC and then the Peach Bowl had growing pains as well. Fans loved the way Greg Ward could get the team out of any jam. But that team had to rally from 20 points down at home to beat Memphis on a wild, chilly night at TDECU and lost a week later without Ward.
Part of the reason that fans love those teams was their ability to fight through adversity, rally, and escape with wins. Those teams matured as the season went on; they had to learn how to win and learn how to win in different ways.
Everyone remembers the LaTech comeback, but that doesn’t happen unless the defense shuts down the Bulldog offense for the last 20 minutes. Kyle Postma is the darling of that 2015 Memphis game but UH loses that week if the defense didn’t cause two fourth-quarter turnovers. Those teams played complementary football.
This team, too, is learning how to play complementary football. They are learning how to win and also how to do it in different ways. Yesterday was a chilly, windy day in Tampa, much like that 2015 game against Memphis. The Cougars were ranked for the first time in 3+ years and dealt with accolades, attaboys, and other off-the-field noise they had never experienced. Yet, they fought through that adversity and prevailed on the road.
Do you know who also struggled yesterday? Number two Alabama was in a dogfight at home with a mediocre LSU team until the final buzzer. And #6 Cincinnati barely pulled it off at home vs. Tulsa. Do you know who didn’t survive? Wake Forest, ranked 9th and undefeated, lost to UNC. TCU just fired Gary Patterson but beat #12 Baylor. Teams ranked #13, #18 (at home), #20 (at home to an awful Illinois team), and #23 (embarrassed at home) all lost.
UH came out flat on defense, woeful on kick return, and managed to survive. And due to that 8-1 record and 2021’s continued craziness, they’ll move into the CFP Top-25 on Tuesday.
Seeing improvement yet seeking more
UH’s pass blocking has improved in the last few weeks. The game is slowing down for Alton McCaskill while Ta’Zhawn Henry and Mulbah Car add dimensions to the running game UH hasn’t seen since 2015. KeSean Carter, Jake Herslow, and Jeremy Singleton are getting more involved in the passing game and becoming better blockers on the perimeter. Dana Holgorsen’s offense has steadily gotten better as the season has played out.
Most importantly, Clayton Tune is playing at an all-conference level. He’s making better decisions, more accurate throws, and he’s commanding the offense. Saturday in Tampa, he was as good as he’s ever been. Impressively, he continued to get better as the game wore on and ended the game completing his final 13-straight passes.
Tune is not the same player as Case Keenum and does not have the same gifts as Greg Ward, Jr. But the lights have come on this year for Clayton and it’s been fun to see his game advance week over week. Tune has been north of a 70% completion rate all year and, since the Grambling game, he’s thrown 15 touchdowns and just one interception.
Several times last week, Dana said that his team had not played its best football yet. But even short of their best football, they have learned to step up when needed. If the offense is struggling, the defense picks them up, or special teams make a play. If the defense struggles, Marcus Jones returns a kick or the offense puts together a long drive. If special teams has breakdowns like Saturday, Tune marches his offense up and down the field.
The 2021 team is growing and has delivered a fun and exciting journey. These Cougars have done the work and won the games that should earn the trust of the fanbase.