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Monday, November 19, 2018

Commentary

Cougars’ colossal 3-game meltdown shatters league champion chance


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The Cougars’ epic collapse in the past three games has made their chances of playing in the conference title game almost non-existent. | Ajani Stewart/The Cougar

As if being denied by the Big 12 wasn’t a big enough blow this week, the Cougars traveled to Dallas where they were gut-punched by the 22-point underdog Southern Methodist University Mustangs.

Houston is now 3-2 in the American Athletic Conference and their preseason goal of repeating as league champions is over, especially after the United States Naval Academy beat the University of Memphis by 14 points.

The Cougars’ season is in disarray after three-straight uninspiring performances on all sides of the ball. So much of what made the team good at in the first half of the season is nowhere to be seen as of late.

Rusty defense

Through the first five games of the season, the Cougars had a fierce rush defense that gave up only 42 yards per game and was ranked No. 1 in the country.

In the three games since, UH has been unable to stop anyone on the ground as five different backs have rushed for 59 yards or more in that time span.

The Cougars once-staunch rush defense has given up an average of 192.7 yards in the past three games, although the Navy game accounted for 52 percent of the total rushing yards.

On the year, the Cougars are allowing 98.5 yards per game. While this may keep them in the top 10, their defensive wall is broken.

There were also some worries that the UH secondary was going to get exploited due to its inexperience heading into the season.

Although the Cougars gave up more than 270 yards in three of their first five games, the unit was playing above their capabilities even in the absence of senior cornerback Brandon Wilson.

The passing yards allowed per game have only increased by 15 when comparing the first five games to the past three, but the three latest opposing quarterbacks have had ample time in the pocket to pick apart the Cougars’ defensive backs.

University of Tulsa’s senior quarterback Dane Evans lit up the secondary because he was able to hang in the pocket and read through his progressions to find the mismatch. The Cougars won, barely, but allowed a season-high 365 yards through the air.

Part of why the secondary has finally been exposed is because the defensive front has not been able to generate pressure on the quarterback or in the backfield in general.

The most glaring stat is that Houston has only one sack in the past three competitions after piling up 18 sacks in the first five. They have had trouble just bothering the opposing play caller, as they’ve only been credited for five quarterback hurries.

The Cougars have also struggled to produce tackles behind the line of scrimmage. The defense had 40 tackles for loss in the first five contests, but has only managed 14 lately.

Not only that, the few tackles that they have been able to make behind the line have been shallower. The 40 tackles averaged 4.2 yards for loss early in the season, whereas the recent 14 have notched an average of just 2.4 yards.

The defensive front’s failure to create chaos in the backfield has caused problems for the secondary. The opposing quarterback gets more time to throw, forcing the corners to stay in coverage longer and are more likely to break down.

Problems on offense

Another huge reason the Cougars have stalled as of late is due to the offensive line’s inadequacy to protect senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr.

The offensive line had a lack of experience heading into the season on top of being plagued with injuries throughout the season. Still, they managed to find a way to shield Ward early in the season.

Redshirt freshman Josh Jones and sophomore Will Noble were the only starters from week one who participated in the past three games. Noble, however, left the SMU game with an injury, which forced junior Alex Fontana to move over to center from guard.

The Cougars have given up 18 sacks on the year, but half of those have been accumulated in the past three contests.

The Mustangs’ defense abused the Cougars’ offensive line, causing it to break down on several plays that led either to a sack, a tackle for loss or an incomplete and often underthrown pass.

There are several factors that could be attributed to UH’s sudden downturn. Still, everything must be resolved quickly considering the season isn’t over even though conference championship aspirations are.

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