The Houston Cougars, at least for a week, are all smiles.
Heading into an Oct. 30 C-USA game against Memphis, the Cougars are on one of the emotional highs of their roller coaster season.
The reason is simple.
"In this business, winning cures everything," linebacker Matt Nicholson told the Houston Chronicle. "We're really enjoying (the SMU win on Oct. 23), for sure. We needed this bad."
A week prior, the football world wrote the Cougars off. Giving up the first league win of the season to a down Rice football team will do that. In addition to the loss to the cross-town rival Owls, Houston also appeared destined to relinquish its hold on the C-USA West Division crown to the red-hot SMU Mustangs.
Then came a surprisingly one-sided blowout road win over the Mustangs.
"Now we're in first place," wide receiver Patrick Edwards told the Chronicle. "Teams have got to come get us."
Of course there is still a tough road ahead. Houston (4-3, 3-1 in C-USA) has just four league games left, and if they win them all, they win the division as they hold the tiebreaker with SMU.
Unfortunately for Houston, three of their final four games are against teams with winning records in UCF (5-2, 3-0), Southern Miss (5-2, 2-1) and Tulsa (4-3, 2-2). And if the Rice game was any indication, playing a C-USA team with no league wins doesn't really mean much either.
For the Cougars, each week has been unpredictable so far this season. Why stop now?
--The Oct. 23 win over SMU was not only good enough to put Houston in first place in the C-USA West Division race, it also netted two players individual player of the week honors.
Senior LB Sammy Brown was named C-USA Defensive Player of the Week after registering eight tackles with four of those coming behind the line of scrimmage, including a pair of sacks. He also forced a fumble the Cougars were able to convert into a field goal.
Junior WR Tyron Carrier returned a kick 91 yards for a touchdown and scored C-USA Special Teams Player of the Week honors. It was his sixth-career kick return touchdown, and he now trails former Clemson player C.J. Spiller (7) for the NCAA career record. Carrier also moved past 5,000 career all-purpose yards in the game.
--The two rushing touchdowns on Oct. 23 for RB Bryce Beall gave him the school's career rushing TD record at 32. He passed Jackie Battle (2003-2006).
--While the Houston run game has looked good this year, stopping the run is another story. Houston ranks last in C-USA in rush defense, allowing 189.3 rushing yards per game. Fortunately for the Cougars, this week's opponent, Memphis, ranks 11th in rush offense, gaining just 91.4 rushing yards per game.
SERIES HISTORY: Houston leads Memphis 10-9 (last meeting, 2009, Houston 55-14).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: QB David Piland is progressing nicely and, coming from Southlake Carroll High School in the Dallas area, it shouldn't surprise anyone that even as a true freshman his arm isn't falling off running the Cougars offense. He can throw. What's helped him the most recently, however, is the run game. RBs Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes combined for four rushing touchdowns and 171 rushing yards in last week's win over SMU. The offensive line continues to be hit and miss, but when it gives Piland time, he can find receivers. The offense hasn't been as high scoring as in recent years, but it's still put up enough to lead the league at 39.6 points per game.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Maybe the defense won't have much to worry about the rest of the season if LB Sammy Brown keeps up his torrid pace. The senior has had nine tackles for loss in the past two games - five vs. Rice on Oct. 16, four vs. SMU on Oct. 23 -- catapulting him into a tie for most in C-USA (12.5). His pressure has been most welcome for a defense that hasn't exactly been playing championship-level football most of the year, but it's apparent now that, if nothing else, Brown has elevated Houston's linebacking corps into one of the best in the league along with Marcus McGraw and Matt Nicholson, who have combined for 111 tackles this season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If it's a good play or bad play, pick up our teammates and go on to the next play." -- Houston WR Patrick Edwards to the Houston Chronicle.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Houston at Memphis, Oct. 30 -- This is a game Houston should win with relative ease, but that hasn't been their MO. Houston has had an up and down year and followed a loss two weeks ago with one of the league's worst teams in Rice with a win last week against one of the league's best teams in SMU.
KEYS TO THE GAME: It seems like you'd want to stop the Houston passing game to beat the Cougars, but the reality is true freshman QB David Piland isn't going to beat you alone. When Houston has looked like a league title contender, it has been when RBs Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall go off for big games on the ground. This year, it's all about stopping the Cougars run game.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
LB Sammy Brown -- It's not clear what's got into the senior the past two games, but whatever it is, the Houston coaching staff is hoping to bottle it up and use it every week the rest of the year. Brown had 3.5 tackles for loss through the team's first five games and has erupted for nine in the past two, putting him in a three-way tie for the league lead.
QB David Piland -- He'll be a player worth watching every week the rest of the season. As a true freshman, he's bound to have stretches of inexperience shining through, but his ability to quickly recover from those rookie mistakes will tell the story of the Cougars' season. He doesn't have to win games for them, but he can't hurt them with mistakes.
RBs Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes -- As long as these two combine for 171 yards and four rushing TDs, like they did last week vs. SMU, it really might not matter what Piland does. The Houston run game has looked great at times this year and has disappeared in other games. The team's record pretty much falls in line with whatever these two decide to do on a weekly basis.
--The Houston offensive line of LT Jacolby Ashworth, LG Isaiah Thompson, C Jordan Shoemaker, RG Chris Thompson and RT Roy Watts has started all seven games this season.
--LB Sammy Brown had 3.5 tackles for loss in the team's first five games and has had 9.0 in the past two games, notching five against Rice and four against SMU.