Despite winning the total yardage battle by a mere 70 yards, Houston continued to show itself as a team that makes the most of its opportunities, as four more defensive takeaways for an NCAA-best 40 overall powered the Cougars to a 34-0 blowout of Southern Methodist in Houston's season finale Friday at Reliant Stadium. The victory ended a streak of three consecutive one-score losses, sending the Cougars off to the bowl season with a sweet taste in their collective mouths.
"It's the most family-like team I've ever been a part of," said head coach Tony Levine, whose club improved to 8-4, 5-3 in American Athletic Conference play after sporting just a 5-7 mark in 2012, his first season at the Houston helm. "I've said this before, talking about our leadership from within, but when you've got that and the egos are down and everybody's doing their job for the common cause, you've got a chance to have a fun season. I think we'll look back at some fun games, some we've won, some we didn't, but I'm really proud of our student-athletes. The work, the focus they've put in over the course of this regular season, and I thought they did a nice job with the transition from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference."
The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated project Houston as participants versus Notre Dame in the Dec. 28 Pinstripe Bowl, while CBS Sports has the Cougars in the Belk Bowl on that same day, up against North Carolina. Most bowl invitations will be out by the beginning of next week.
The Houston turnaround from 2012 is most attributable to the turnaround of its defense, which -- after the hiring of former Houston Texans defensive backs coach David Gibbs as coordinator -- suddenly transformed into a group as dangerous as any in Houston history. Cornerback Zach McMillian had two interceptions Friday to give him four on the season, tying him with safety Trevon Stewart for second-best on the team behind strong safety Adrian McDonald's five picks. One of those intercepts was of the end zone variety to halt a potential SMU scoring drive. McDonald's first-quarter pick set up Kyle Bullard's 27-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead by the end of the first 15 minutes.
The shutout was Houston's first since a 56-0 shellacking of Georgia Southern (also the first conference blanking since a 64-0 boiling of Rice in 1989) in 2011, and it came at the expense of SMU redshirt freshman backup quarterback Neal Burcham, who threw three interceptions in his first-ever start while subbing for sidelined senior starter Garrett Gilbert, knocked from the previous week's win over Rutgers with a knee injury.
"(The shutout) meant a lot, because we haven't had one the whole year," said McMillian. "We wanted to end on a good note. Coach Gibbs told us everybody remembers the last thing you did, so we just wanted to end on a good note."
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--After a season bereft of big plays, sophomore DE Eric Eiland finally made a splash in the finale, scooping up an errant SMU shotgun snap and racing 62 yards with the return before finally being tracked down just inside the one. Backup RB Kent Brooks scored on the following play with 38 seconds left to give Houston a 24-0 edge at the break.
--Freshman QB John O'Korn, while struggling over the season's last month, still managed to set a couple of Houston rookie records in the finale. His two touchdown passes pushed him to 26 scoring tosses on the season, bettering Kevin Kolb's 2003 freshman mark of 25. His 25 of 41, two-touchdown effort Friday also garnered him most passing completions for a freshman. His mark of 239 surpasses Kolb's previous standard of 220.
--With standout slot WR Deontay Greenberry on the shelf Friday with a bad knee, Daniel Spencer stepped into the breach. His 67-yard touchdown reception on Houston's first offensive snap set the tone for his day that included a game-best seven catches for 100 yards. The 100-yard effort was Spencer's fourth of the season, finishing second on the team to Greenberry (70-1,106-10) with 50 catches, 764 yards and six receiving touchdowns.
NEXT WEEK: Houston awaits its first bowl invite in two years.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Simplifying our defensive package allows us more time to work on tackling, to work on the fundamentals, to work on creating turnovers, and you've seen the great combination this season of everything I just talked about. We've simplified, we've stressed techniques and fundamentals, and the results to me have been very evident." -- Head coach Tony Levine
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Despite rushing for just three yards over the game's first 15 minutes, the Houston run game exploded by recent standards, amassing 120 ground yards, surpassing the century mark as a team for the first time since a 136-yard effort Nov. 9 at Central Florida. RB Ryan Jackson (seven carries for 62 yards and a TD) led the way, with his 36-yard scoring run early in the third quarter officially icing the contest at 31-0. But on the whole, the unit has been dismal, averaging just 114.2 ground yards per game since an opening week 372-yard performance versus Southwest Athletic Conference softie Southern, including only 73.5 yards on average in its four losses.
Scouting the passing game: The air game has seen diminishing returns over the season's last month, with QB John O'Korn (60-percent completion rate, 2,889 yards, 26 TDs, eight interceptions in 10 starts) answering successive sub-.500 passing games with his second two-interception outing in four contests. Spencer, who has either a big game or no game at all, was huge Friday covering for WR Deontay Greenberry, who's been in and out of the lineup of late with a combination of head and ankle injuries. Coach Tony Levine said the standout sophomore is expected back healthy and in the lineup in time for bowl season. The wildcard could be freshman Greg Ward, who despite still getting snaps at quarterback, came through with his best outing as a receiver Friday, grabbing five balls for 48 yards, including a 19-yarder for his first-ever touchdown catch.
Scouting the run defense: The defensive front seven held a powerless SMU run game that has strayed far from its Pony Express days to only 114 yards in the shutout. MLB Derrick Hatcher posted 11 tackles, while OLB Efrem Oliphant led that corps with 12 stops. Hard-charging S Adrian McDonald led all Cougars with 13 tackles, while the equally aggressive Trevon Stewart, despite seeing his consecutive takeaway streak halted at four games, chipped in nine stops. "Our guys have been flying around, they've been taking a lot of pride in playing good defense," Levine said. "The turnovers, that's a habit and second nature for our young men, and something they're taking pride in. The tackling this year has been outstanding."
Scouting the pass defense: CB Zachary McMillian's two interceptions, along with S Adrian McDonald's first-quarter theft, gave the Houston defense 23 picks for the season to offset its 276.2 passing yards per game allowance. "They have come a long way," slot WR Daniel Spencer said. "We used to have to outscore everybody, but now they're playing great team defense all the way around. They're a huge improvement. They're great out there."
--K Kyle Bullard joins OLBs Efrem Oliphant and Steven Taylor as wildly successful in-season ascensions to a starting role. Since taking over extra-point and field-goal chores in late October, Bullard has made all five of his field-goal attempts, including two 27-yarders Friday. The sophomore's first-ever attempt provided immediate dividends, as he knocked in a 46-yard effort at Louisville. Richie Leone, who he took the job from, never connected from beyond 40 yards over the season's first seven contests.
--Kent Brooks, who's spent much of the last two seasons bouncing between safety and running back, appears finally set as the backup to one-backs Ryan Jackson and offensive team captain Kenneth Farrow. The senior rushed for 27 yards on nine carries Friday, including his first-ever touchdown.
--Preseason head and leg injuries bumped Ty Cloud from his normal spot on the starting offensive line this season, and the 6-4, 335-pounder never got that spot back until the season finale, when he was on the field blocking the strong-side edge on WR Daniel Spencer's 67-yard scoring grab. Four of five line spots were manned by seniors on Senior Day, with regular RT Zach Johnson eventually re-entering the game with the Cougars already up a touchdown.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Tony Levine