Shutout against SMU solidifies defensive turnaround
The day after Thanksgiving, the UH defense was still hungry enough to make a proper meal out of SMU.
With four forced turnovers, the Cougars (8-4, 5-3) had an easy time dealing with the Mustangs (5-6, 4-3), who were without senior starting quarterback Garrett Gilbert — leaving redshirt freshman Neal Burcham to be sacked five times and intercepted three times. The defense led the way as UH routed SMU 34-0 at Reliant Stadium on Friday.
For the Cougars, the shutout placed a cherry on top of a defensive turnaround this season. UH went from having one of the nation’s worst-ranked defenses a year ago to a squad that leads the country in turnovers and held Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, a potential top 10 pick in the next NFL draft, without a passing touchdown this season.
After hiring defensive coordinator David Gibbs, the Cougars simplified their scheme, which has allowed more practice time for areas where the team struggled last season, like tackling and forcing turnovers, said head coach Tony Levine.
“Our guys have been flying around, and they’ve taken a lot of pride in playing good defense,” Levine said. “The turnovers have become almost second nature, and the tackling has been outstanding.”
The UH defense, dubbed the Third Ward Defense, did what no UH team has done since Dec. 2, 1989 — they shut out a conference opponent. UH limited SMU to 295 total yards, including only 83 rushing yards.
“Even when you play pee wee football, everybody gets excited about the (shutout),” said senior cornerback Zachary McMillian. “I think we were all just trying to take pride in that. Defensively, we sub in a lot of people, and I think each person who was on that field took it personally when it came to not letting them score.”
For the game, McMillian was responsible for two of the interceptions, while sophomore defensive end Eric Eiland contributed with one sack and a 62-yard return of a Burcham fumble that he returned to the 1-yard line. The Cougars cashed in one play later when senior running back Kent Brooks crossed the goal line. Sophomore safety Adrian McDonald also got his fifth interception of the season in the first quarter.
Without Gilbert behind center, UH focused on rattling Burcham during his collegiate start.
“We wanted to get after him and get him uncomfortable, and that’s exactly what we did,” Eiland said.
At a school with a history of over-achieving offense, the resurgence of defense is a welcome sight to the offense, said junior receiver Daniel Spencer.
From the other side of the balls, the stellar play of the defense was enough to make the offense breathe a little easier.
“You don’t stress as much when you don’t feel like you have to score every drive,” Spencer said. “It was really laid-back, and we weren’t worried about the score. The defense has been playing great all year for us, so hats off to the defense.”