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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Football

Three takeaways: Offense, defense, coaching shine against SMU


Saturday night was one to remember for Houston RB Duke Catalon. The junior set career-best marks in rush yards, rush TDs and yards per carry. | Thomas Dwyer/The Cougar

The 35-22 victory over the Mustangs earns the Cougars a 2-0 start to conference play against one of the nation’s top offensive teams. SMU entered the game with a 4-1 record and the third-ranked offense in the country averaging over 48 points per game.

Anyone who follows college football recognized that the Cougars, although the favorite to win the game, would have their hands full attempting to slow down the high-powered Mustang offense.

Considering that Houston’s offensive attack has fallen asleep for quarters at a time this season, the Cougars would need nothing more than a complete performance to stay perfect in American Athletic Conference play.

Here’s a look at how they made it happen Saturday:

Bend, don’t break defense

SMU is full of talent on its offense.

Junior wide receiver Courtland Sutton is expected to be one of the first selected at his position in the 2018 NFL Draft, and sophomore QB Ben Hicks has proved to be a solid option as the team’s signal-caller.

Both players filled the stat sheet as the Mustangs’ offense sprinted up and down the field en route to 544 yards for the unit. Although an impressive total, wins and losses in American football are determined only by points — something that SMU did not score enough of.

“I feel like we applied ourselves as a defense,” Cougars’ senior safety Terrell Williams said. “When (SMU) got in between the 20-yard line and the goal line, we stepped up. We knew it was time.”

Stepping up is an understatement.

Houston’s defense clamped down nearly every time SMU crossed midfield. As a result, the Mustangs were forced to kick four field goals, one of which sailed wide right.

In addition, each of the Mustangs’ final three drives of the game resulted in turnovers forced by the Cougars’ defense. A turnover on downs followed by back-to-back Williams interceptions inside the red zone created an opportune time for fans to head for the exits.

For the first time all season, the Mustangs failed to score in the fourth quarter, due in large part to Williams’ late efforts.

Even so, accolades remain secondary for the senior.

“It feels good,” Williams said. “Overall I’m just happy to get the win with my team. Without them, I couldn’t have done any of that. They brought out the pressure and locked everyone else up. Without them, I couldn’t have done anything.”

Catalon, a catalyst on offense

Expectations were through the roof for junior running back Duke Catalon when he transferred to UH from the University of Texas.

In his first game against Oklahoma in last season’s opener, the then-sophomore took fans by storm, displaying a fine balance of power and speed, resulting in 119 all-purpose yards and a TD.

Injuries and the Cougars’ running-back-by-committee offense has kept Catalon from truly gaining momentum through his first two seasons. His skills are apparent, yet the junior has struggled to find his second gear.

“I felt like I wasn’t going hard enough in practice or meeting (head coach Major Applewhite’s) expectations,” Catalon said. “I was apologizing to him because he was the one that brought me over from UT. I was saying thank you for that opportunity, and I was going to start working harder in practice.”

Whether it was improvements in practice or meeting with his head coach, one thing is certain: The hybrid back was running on 100 percent diesel Saturday.

New career-bests in rush yards (178), rushing TDs (2), average (8.0) and a career-long rush of 52 yards fueled the offense for the entire 60 minutes.

“I just believed in him,” Applewhite said. “He came in on Sunday, and we had a little quick talk. He said, ‘Hey I’m going to do better than what I’ve been doing.’ I said, ‘I love you man. You know you’re going to do well — just go do it. We don’t need to talk about it.’ He did. He went out and just did it.”

King: Ruler of land and air

Sophomore D’Eriq King has quickly become one of the most exciting players in all of college football. The converted high school QB spent his freshman season in 2016 primarily as a returner and back-up receiver, but an increased role in 2017 could place the sophomore among Cougar football royalty.

King’s unique skill set forces defenses to be on guard constantly and gives the Cougars’ offense some unpredictability.

In the second quarter Saturday, Applewhite dug deep into his proverbial bag of tricks. A double-reverse bought QB Kyle Postma just enough time to sneak outside the tackle and down the right side of the field toward the end zone.

“They were worried about me on the sweep. Postma ran a great route and got open,” King said. “I just threw him the ball, and he did all of the work.”

Realizing mistakes had been made, defenders engaged in last-ditch efforts to change directions as the ball left King’s hand.

The efforts were too little, too late, as the perfectly thrown spiral was already closing in on the outstretched hands of his quarterback, wide open and in a beeline to six points.

“When he threw it, I was just telling myself not to drop it,” Postma said. “It was a perfect pass, and all I had to do was catch it and run to the end zone.”

Twenty-two yards later, the Cougars reclaimed a 14-12 lead — effectively reinvigorating the Cougars on both sides of the ball.

The connection was both the second career passing TD for King as well as the second career receiving score for Postma. Given the proven playmaking ability of both men, it seems safe to assume this won’t be last trick play we see from duo this season.

“It was a great call. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was going to be a touchdown,” King said. “We both wanted the play. We talked to each other last night in the hotel room and said that if they called the play, we were going to score. That’s what we did.”

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