Last-minute Memphis loss leaves Cougars searching for answers
The Cougars fell to 4-3 on the season after their 42-38 loss against Memphis, their second in a row, at TDECU Stadium on Thursday night.
Houston and Memphis went back and forth most of the game, but it was the Tigers who capitalized on key turnovers and stops to come away with the victory.
After scoring zero points in the first half, senior quarterback Riley Ferguson led Memphis to a second half comeback to win their first game as a ranked team and give the Cougars their third loss of the season and second in conference.
“You have to just face it,” head coach Major Applehwite said after the game. “It’s part of athletics. It’s part of sports. We are never going to get accustomed to this feeling, but you have to be honest with yourself about what you did or didn’t do in crunch time as a player, and hopefully you will do better the next time.”
The first quarter started off relatively slow. Both teams struggled to move the ball and wasted several opportunities. Memphis started 0-of-4 on third down, while the Cougars had problems of their own and went 1-of-4.
Both teams barely eclipsed 100 yards of total offense to begin the game. But Houston was able to capitalize on one-of-five drives to score a one-yard touchdown by junior running back Duke Catalon with 3:29 left on the clock.
Houston carried that momentum straight into the second and started the quarter with a 15-play and 94-yard drive capped off with yet another touchdown by senior running back Dillon Birden to put the Cougars up by 14 points.
In the first half, the Cougar defense returned to greatness with plays all over the field. Ed Oliver had a big sack just a few days after being named AP mid-season All-American, and junior safety Garrett Davis continued his stellar season with another interception.
The Cougars added a 30-yard field goal by junior kicker Caden Novikoff to make the score 17-0.
The second half saw the Tigers gain momentum — and the lead. The Cougars got the ball first but had a quick 3-and-out before giving the ball back to Memphis.
“When you are talking about making a run for your side of the conference in terms of a championship you have to play well in crunch time,” Applewhite said. “You have to be dialed into your assignments and understand the situation.”
Memphis finally capitalized on a drive and managed to score on its first possession of the half. Senior quarterback Riley Ferguson led the Tigers down the field, and the team finally put points on the board with a rushing touchdown to make the game 17-7 early in the third quarter.
Houston answered back quickly with a touchdown of its own. Duke Catalon mowed into the end zone for another touchdown to put the Cougars up 24-7.
Memphis sophomore kick returner Tony Pollard returned his third kick-off of the season for a touchdown to bring the game within 10 points.
The back and forth continued till the end of the third quarter. The Cougars didn’t take the big kick-off return lightly and quickly scored on yet another Duke Catalon run to make the score 31-14 with 1:31 second left in the third quarter.
Catalon’s third touchdown was also a milestone for the running back, who had never scored more than two rushing touchdowns in one night before this game.
Ferguson again drove his team down the field in just three plays, finishing with a touchdown by sophomore running back Patrick Taylor. When the third quarter ended, the Tigers were again within ten points of the Cougars.
To start off the fourth, Ferguson capitalized on a costly sack-fumble by Postma and led Memphis down. The Tigers ended their drive with another rushing touchdown by Taylor to make the score 31-28.
The Cougars continued chugging along despite the miscue on the last drive. Postma’s offense delivered another touchdown, this time to senior wide receiver Steven Dunbar for 8 yards.
The Cougars allowed Memphis to score another touchdown in their next series on the back of Taylor again. He scored his fourth touchdown of the night with 5:14 left of the clock. The Cougars still led with the score at 38-35.
Memphis managed to hold the Cougars back just enough to climb back in the game and took a 42-38 lead with just 1:28 seconds left in the game.
“We played hard, and they played hard, too,” Garrett Davis said after the game. “It comes down to finishing and securing the ball. We lacked that at the end. We just need to go back to practice, work hard and apply everything we learned this week, this loss, past losses. Just move on to the next game.”
They followed that with a spectacular play on defense to strip the ball from Kyle Postma and take control of the game with a minute left.
It all ended with a Postma interception on the Cougars’ last possession of the night. The Cougars now fall to 4-3 and are desperately searching for answers in head coach Major Applewhite’s first year on the job. The loss represents the most points the Cougars have given up in one half since losing 72-42 to SMU in 2012.
Houston will face the No. 16-ranked South Florida Bulls on Oct. 28 in Tampa, Florida.