UH battle cry: 'We're still here' Cougars are underdogs despite home win streak
The horror of it all:
The Houston Cougars are four games into their season, and they have yet to slay a college football giant. Their Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback, the resident coach and conscience on the field, is out for the season with a knee injury. The signature spread offense has turned into a lab experiment that has put an assortment of explosive materials in the hands of two freshman quarterbacks.
The Cougars have won 18 consecutive times at Robertson Stadium, the site of today's 7 p.m. game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Despite having the nation's fourth-longest home winning streak, despite having defeated the Bulldogs last October in Starkville, Miss., the Cougars are 5?Â½-point underdogs.
"Sometimes people looking from the outside see things happen, and it's understandable that they would feel a certain way," UH senior guard Isaiah Thompson said. "But we know things about ourselves that other people haven't realized yet."
The Cougars (3-1) are coming off an open date that gave them time to rediscover themselves. A 31-13 Sept. 18 defeat against UCLA at the Rose Bowl cost the Cougars starting quarterback Case Keenum, backup Cotton Turner, a No. 23 ranking and a good bit of their aura.
On the one hand, UH bounced back the next week to defeat Tulane 42-23 with true freshman Terrance Broadway starting at quarterback and true freshman David Piland waiting in the wings. On the other hand, Tulane was 30 yards from taking the lead midway in the fourth quarter.
"We've always been, 'Hey, they're going to love you one minute; the minute something goes bad, they're not going to love you the same,'?" UH senior cornerback Jamal Robinson said. "That's why we never get caught up in it, just go on about it being about us. That's a theme around here: It's all about us."
UH coach Kevin Sumlin's grand plan had been for Broadway and Piland to compete for the starting quarterback job next season. Instead, the Cougars have been trying to get the two freshmen up to speed to operate a high-tempo, no-huddle offense now.
Sumlin said he would announce the starter at game time. Broadway has 36 passes worth of college experience. Piland has yet to take a college snap, though Sumlin said he anticipates that will change - one way or another - before season's end.
"We'd like to go as fast as humanly possible," Sumlin said. "If we can get to that speed and be efficient at it, we'll keep it there. If not, we're not going to force anything on a young guy who can't handle it.
"Even slow for us is still pretty fast for most people."
Questioning the offense
Broadway came out of Baton Rouge, La., advertised by Rivals.com as the nation's fifth-best dual-threat quarterback prospect. Sumlin said his e-mail box virtually runneth over with suggestions that he tweak the UH offense to allow the quarterbacks to run more often. Keenum had 103 rushing attempts splitting time with Blake Joseph as the starter the year before Sumlin's arrival. That total fell to 60 last season.
"We could put in some more running game," Sumlin said. "Case was a running quarterback before we got here. The Catch-22 is, you run guys, they get hit. We work a lot on sliding, and they don't want to do that. You don't want to expose your guys too much.
"We're running out of 'em (quarterbacks) - let's be honest. It's a great idea to utilize guys' legs and move the chains, but how much of that do you want us to do? We've got to be smart with what we do."
Still have playmakers
Besides, the Cougars have two available receivers, juniors Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier, who had more than 1,000 yards apiece in 2009. The Cougars would have three 1,000-yard receivers, but senior James Cleveland is suspended for this week's game because of disciplinary reasons. Bryce Beall, the 2008 Conference USA Freshman of the Year who fell on hard times last season, has bounced back to rank 25th in the nation in rushing (104.5 yards per game, 6.7 per carry) and second in scoring (nine touchdowns).
"Psychologically, we're jacked up," Thompson said. "We're ready to roll. I feel like I speak for everyone on the team when I say: We're still a good offense, and we can still contend against anybody we play."
Horrors and indignities aside.
At this time last season, the Cougars were heading into Game 5 against the Bulldogs with credibility-building victories over Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. The Cougars' two victories this season against Football Bowl Subdivision competition came against teams (UTEP and Tulane) that were 7-17 in 2009.
"We're still here," Carrier said. "People are calling us out. This is the time we show what we have.