No. 13 Cougars seek bounce-back effort
The common belief is that Houston no longer has anything to shoot for this season.
Cougars coach Tom Herman vehemently disagrees with that notion.
Houston is no longer a factor in the College Football Playoff chase after suffering its first loss of the season but the No. 13 Cougars look to bounce back when they host Tulsa in an American Athletic Conference game Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Houston's dream of an undefeated season and crashing the playoff party ended when it dropped a 46-40 decision to Navy last week.
The defeat changes the national perception of the Cougars (5-1, 2-1) but Herman said the squad's aspirations aren't doused by a single loss.
"Our goals are completely ahead of us," Herman said at a press conference. "Our goal was not to go undefeated, it was not to just beat Oklahoma, and our goal wasn't to be ranked in the top 10 or five. Our goal is to win our conference. That goal is still out there."
The Cougars need help with their conference quest as they trail Navy in the AAC's West division.
But Herman isn't the least bit interested in having to apologize for the team's second loss in 20 games on his watch.
"The state of the program, after a season-and-a-half, in 14 months we are 18-2. That's a .900 winning percentage, that's pretty damn good," Herman said. "We are 5-0 against Top 25 teams, 2-0 against top 10 teams, and we have shattered numerous records on both sides of the ball.
"Some really cool things too. We have opportunity to have the best back-to-back seasons in the history of the University of Houston football. The win total for that over a two-year span sits at 21 right now. We are 18."
Tulsa (4-1, 1-0) could represent another test for the Cougars because of its prolific offense.
The Golden Hurricane have averaged 49.7 points during a three-game winning streak and have topped 500 yards in 10 of their 18 games under second-year coach Philip Montgomery.
In each of the last two games, Tulsa had two running backs top 100 yards and two receivers go over 100 yards.
Junior running back D'Angelo Brewer has rushed for 434 yards in the two contests -- including a career-best 252 against Fresno State -- to raise his season total to 716 yards. Brewer's average of 143.2 yards per game ranks fourth nationally. Senior sidekick James Flanders had rushed for 390 yards and four touchdowns.
Senior receivers Keevan Lucas (36 receptions for 508 yards and five touchdowns) and Josh Atkinson (32-354-2) are having solid seasons. Senior quarterback Dane Evans has passed for 1,135 yards and nine touchdowns but has been intercepted seven times.
Senior middle linebacker Trent Martin has a team-best 35 tackles and junior linebacker Petera Wilson Jr. has a team-leading 3 1/2 sacks. But the defense has been shaky by allowing 81 total points over the last two games -- both decided in overtime.
"I don't think there are ugly wins," Montgomery said. "For me, every win is beautiful. Every win that you get in college football is a beautiful, beautiful win."
It could be challenging for the Golden Hurricane to slow down Houston junior quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who has passed for 1,684 yards and 11 touchdowns against four interceptions. Ward also has rushed for 272 yards and six touchdowns -- both team highs.
The Heisman Trophy candidate passed for 359 yards and three touchdowns against Navy but his mistakes were also a factor in the defeat. Ward accounted for three turnovers -- he was intercepted twice and lost one of his two fumbles.
Junior receivers Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar are both enjoying fine seasons. Bonner had 42 receptions for 556 yards and two touchdowns while Dunbar has 30 catches for 438 yards and three scores.
Defensively, the Cougars allowed 306 rushing yards in the loss to Navy after holding their previous seven opponents to fewer than 100.
Senior linebacker Steven Taylor, who has a team-leading 5 1/2 sacks, will return after a one-game absence because of a violation of team policy. Sophomore cornerback Howard Wilson has three interceptions and junior linebacker Matthews Adams has a team-best 36 tackles.
Houston won the last two meetings and holds a 22-18 series edge. But perhaps an element in this latest matchup is whether there will be a hangover effect for the no-longer unbeaten Cougars.
Bonner promises that what occurred against Navy won't be a factor.
"We have a 24-hour rule where after 24 hours we can't think about the game anymore," Bonner said. "Win or lose the game is behind us, and we can't think about it anymore."