COMMENTARY: Experience wins out
The Cougars looked an awful lot like a team full of inexperienced players in Saturday’s 38-32 loss at East Carolina.
UH (10-3) generated plenty of positive plays, but it also made mistakes in key situations. Meanwhile, the Pirates (9-4), who have 28 seniors on their roster, made plays when it mattered most.
The biggest example occurred when quarterback Case Keenum threw an interception to safety Van Eskridge, who had two interceptions Saturday, with only 42 seconds remaining in the contest. With his team trailing 38-32, Keenum simply tried too hard to make a potential game-winning play.
He could have tossed the pigskin out of bounds and kept his team in the game, rather than throw it to L.J. Castile, who had never played in a conference title game. Castile had a great chance to catch the ball, but that’s a difficult reception to make in that situation.
Considering that Keenum had never been that close to winning a conference title, it’s not surprising that he may have been lost in the heat of the moment. After all, he is human.
Keenum’s good and bad sides
Aside from throwing three interceptions, Keenum’s statistics are quite impressive (56-of-75, 527 yards, five TDs). He also used his legs on several occasions to escape ECU defenders who were closing in on him.
However, Keenum heaved a few lazy passes because ECU’s defense was constantly applying pressure. Instead of taking a couple more sacks to avoid mistakes, Keenum occasionally forced the issue – like many others who have never played in a conference title game.
‘They did a good job of getting pressure with their front four and a good job of getting up field,’ Keenum said.
The Pirates’ quarterback, however, had played in a C-USA championship game before Saturday. That’s partially why his team beat UH.
Although senior Patrick Pinkney didn’t deliver a Heisman Trophy-winning performance, he managed the game much more effectively than Keenum. Pinkney’s statistics (19-of-32, 242 yards, one TD, zero interceptions) won’t garner any accolades or amaze television analysts, but his experience gave him a distinct advantage over one of the nation’s best gunslingers.
Offense forced to settle
Quarterback wasn’t the only position where experience prevailed Saturday.
ECU’s secondary, which features three seniors, was picked apart throughout the game. But it delivered vicious hits, forced turnovers and didn’t allow big plays.
Meanwhile, the Cougars’ offense generated only two plays that gained more than 25 yards. Moreover, James Cleveland’s 57-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter was the only huge offensive play that UH’s offense produced before the fourth quarter.
This forced the Cougars to take what the Pirates’ secondary gave them – short passes over the middle. This worked well for most of the game, but it exposed UH’s receivers to ECU’s hard-hitting defensive backfield.
Eskridge, a senior, was one of the players who was flying across the field and flattening Cougars. He also picked off Keenum early in the fourth quarter to set up Dominique Lindsay’s 7-yard rushing score, which gave the Pirates a 31-19 lead.
Keenum threw his first interception, which cost UH at least three points, to senior safety Levin Neal. And who forced and recovered E.J. Smith’s fumble in the third quarter? That’s right, another senior: linebacker Chris Mattocks.
Special teams were another area where experience was a factor Saturday.
Freshman kicker Matt Hogan, who was quite effective throughout the regular season, missed three extra-point attempts. Those three points proved costly, as the Cougars could have begun their final possession trailing 38-35 instead of 38-32.
ECU’s kicker, senior Ben Hartman, missed a 48-yard field goal attempt, but nailed a 37-yarder and all five of his extra-point attempts.
Before Saturday’s game, UH head coach Kevin Sumlin was most concerned about the Pirates’ experience. Fans saw exactly why he was worried about the senior-laden ECU squad.
Now that UH knows exactly what to expect in a C-USA title contest, it should be more than ready to win this game in 2010. That is, if it can win the West Division next season.