Things are looking pretty dire for the Houston Cougars football team.
With just two road games remaining on the year, the team needs a win either at Southern Miss (7-3, 4-3 C-USA) on Saturday or at Texas Tech (5-5) on Nov. 27 to qualify for a bowl game.
The rollercoaster of emotions for the Cougars (5-5, 4-3 C-USA) has been hard for the team to take.
The Cougars entered the season with optimistic hopes of being a BCS buster or at least a C-USA champion. Now, they're behind the eight ball just to play in a bowl game.
"Our whole team doesn't feel very good about everything right now," Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin said in the Houston Chronicle after reviewing game film of a frustrating five-turnover loss to Tulsa on Nov. 13.
"Whatever the situation in a game is, our job as an offense is to outscore the opponent. Our job as a defense is to stop 'em. We just didn't get that done."
It's hard to pinpoint what is more troubling for the Cougars right now heading into Saturday's C-USA finale against Southern Miss -- not knowing how the team's true freshman quarterback will respond after throwing five interceptions against Tulsa, or not knowing if the team's defense will ever be able to stop a running attack after Tulsa became the fifth team this season to easily surpass 200 rushing yards against it.
Whether the Cougars can get to that bowl-eligible status in the next two weeks is only one of the pressing questions facing the program. The way the team has fizzled this year after the injury of senior quarterback Case Keenum, there are now concerns about the future of the team beyond the 2010 season if Keenum is not granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.
--Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin made it clear that despite a five-interception game last week vs. Tulsa, true freshman QB David Piland will remain the team's starter.
"There's a whole lot of things that go into those mistakes," Sumlin said in the Houston Chronicle. "I don't think there's a game this year where our quarterback has been like that -- nine hits on the quarterback, a lot of different things happening. All five of those turnovers are not on one guy."
--The Houston Cougars carried a 15-game home winning streak at Robertson Stadium into the 2010 season. With wins over Texas State, UTEP and Tulane in the first four games of the year, the Cougars had extended that streak to 18 consecutive home victories.
Things certainly changed.
Last week's home loss to Tulsa made it three consecutive losses for the Cougars at home to close out their home schedule for the year -- losses to Mississippi State, UCF and Tulsa.
"Third straight game of losing in front of these fans, leaving a sour taste in their mouths," senior WR Kierrie Johnson told the Houston Chronicle after the Tulsa loss.
--Senior CB Jamal Robinson and sophomore LB Phillip Steward each had interceptions in last week's loss to Tulsa, pushing the Cougars' season total to 12. That ranks third in C-USA and tied for 31st in the nation.
SERIES HISTORY: Southern Miss leads Houston, 8-3 (last meeting, 2009, 50-43 Houston).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: A team leading its conference in scoring and ranking 10th in the country in that category with 39.1 points per game can't possibly have a struggling offense, can it? Houston is putting that theory to the test lately. The offensive line hasn't been giving true freshman QB David Piland much of a chance -- he was knocked down nine times last week vs. Tulsa, although he wasn't sacked. That played a big role in Piland's five interceptions thrown. Overall, the Cougars still moved the ball with 409 yards of total offense, but the big guys up front are the main deficiency holding Houston's offense back right now.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Young players, especially at the linebacker spots, are starting to step up, which is a good sign for 2011. For the 2010 season, however, it's clear Houston's defense simply doesn't have the talent to keep up with almost anyone on its schedule. The Cougars have allowed five teams to rush for 200-plus yards (Tulsa had 259 last week) and rank 11th in the league in rushing defense (2041 rushing yards allowed per game). Considering Southern Miss has the league's third-best rushing offense at 190.0 yards per game, things may not get any better this week.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The lesson is you learn from your mistakes. As I told everybody: You don't win or lose with one person." -- Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin on his announcement to stick with QB David Piland after a five-interception game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Houston at Southern Miss, Nov. 20 -- Gone are Houston's hopes of repeating as the C-USA West Division champion, but Southern Miss still has hopes of sneaking into the C-USA title game out of the East. For the five-win Cougars, there are only two shots left at achieving bowl eligibility, so this should be a hotly contested game.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Tulsa last week, and several other Houston opponents this season for that matter, made it pretty apparent that the easiest way to beat the Houston Cougars is run right at them. The Cougars can't defend the run and have a defense that wears out easily. While the offense will put up points, if you don't get greedy and take unnecessary risks on offense, you'll put up enough points to have a shot to beat Houston each week.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB David Piland -- The mental makeup of a quarterback is always an important factor. Without confidence, they can't run the offense at the level the Cougars need it to run. After throwing a career-worst five interceptions last week, it will be interesting not just for the rest of this season, but for the future of the Cougars' program to see just how well the true freshman can bounce back from such a poor showing.
LB Phillip Steward -- The sophomore has been coming on strong as of late and giving fellow LB Marcus McGraw plenty of help. Against Tulsa last week, Steward had a team-high 16 tackles and an interception against Tulsa. For a defense that needs a lot of help, Steward's recent emergence is at least a sign of optimism.
LB Efrem Oliphant -- Oliphant is another promising prospect for the future of the Houston program. With senior Matt Nicholson done for the season, Oliphant had 15 tackles in his first career start last week vs. Tulsa and if he, Steward and McGraw can consistently play as they did against Tulsa, the Houston defense may actually have one of the better linebacking corps in the league next year.
--LB Efrem Oliphant had 15 tackles in his first career start Nov. 13 vs. Tulsa filling in for the injured LB Matt Nicholson, who is out for the season with a knee injury.