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Saturday, November 17, 2018

Football

Cougars’ loss streak signifies unfamiliar territory


An agonizing defeat last Thursday leaves the Cougars searching for answers as they enter the late stage of the season. With just nine TDs to 10 interceptions on the season, it may be time to rethink the future at QB. | Thomas Dwyer/The Cougar

A season that began with high expectations has the Cougars in danger of taking a collective step backward in 2017 and entering unfamiliar territory.

With embarrassing, unexpected losses in back-to-back weeks, the team must now scramble to find answers to keep hopes of a bowl-game invitation alive.

“We’ve all had good times, and we’ve all had bad times in our life,” Applewhite said after the team’s loss Saturday. “You have to ultimately accept responsibility for the way you played, coached, head coached. Whatever it is, you have to take responsibility for it and look it dead in the eye.”

The Cougars are now 4-3 after finding themselves on the receiving end of an unlikely comeback by the No. 25-ranked Memphis Tigers on national television. A 17-0 halftime advantage followed by a 24-7 lead with just six minutes left in the third quarter evaporated as the Tigers rained touchdowns on the Cougars en route to a 44-38 victory.

Adding salt to the wound, Thursday’s remarkable loss came just days Tulsa defeated the Cougars. It was in Tulsa that the Cougars jumped out to an early 10-0 lead, only to surrender 38 second-half points to the American Athletic Conference West Division’s worst team.

On the surface, it seems silly to criticize a team with a winning record, but the Cougars have not lost consecutive regular season games since 2012, when they lost three straight in a grueling stretch against No. 19 UCF, No. 19 Louisville and Cincinnati.

If panic is going to set in, now seems like an appropriate time.

Later this week, Houston will embark to Tampa, Florida, to take on the season’s toughest opponent: the No. 17 South Florida Bulls.

“I see a physical offensive line. I see athletes that are competitive, physical players,” Applewhite said about USF. “An athletic quarterback who’s a good decision-maker that will make you pay if you don’t account for him. I see a lot of athletes doing what they’re coached to do, and that’s play physical and competitive.”

The Bulls are the clear-cut favorite to win the AAC as they currently sit atop the standings with a 7-0 record. Don’t look now, but South Florida brings the nation’s longest-active winning streak of 11 games to Saturday’s tilt, a game in which the Bulls will undoubtedly be a heavy favorite.

To make matters worse, South Florida is led by former UT head coach Charlie Strong, who landed with the Bulls after being run out of Austin last fall to be replaced by former UH head coach Tom Herman. Strong is a key factor in the Bulls’ 2017 success, and a loss to his team Saturday would in all likelihood be another residual effect of Herman’s departure.

“This league has gotten so much better since I first got into it two years ago,” Applewhite said. “It doesn’t matter who you play, but certainly in this case when playing an undefeated football team that has a lot of experience returning, playing great defense, taking the ball away, taking care of the football and scoring a lot of points. They’re doing everything right, right now, so it grabs our attention quickly.”

To be considered bowl eligible, Football Bowl Subdivision teams must win a minimum of six games, although even six wins does not necessarily guarantee team’s a berth.

The Cougars’ remaining four opponents – USF, Tulane, ECU and Navy – have a combined record of 17-12 this season. Houston will have its best shot at wins against Tulane and ECU, but gutting out wins at USF and against Navy would be considered great upsets.

Anything can happen, but failing to win three of the final four matchups over the next month may leave the Cougars out of bowl season for the first time since 2012 and just the fourth time since 2003.

Play at the quarterback position has been perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the 2017 Cougars.

After just three games as the starter, highly anticipated transfer QB Kyle Allen was benched in favor of senior Kyle Postma, who brought tenacity to the offense at the price of added turnovers.

Together, the duo have combined for nine TDs and 10 interceptions, including a handful of lost fumbles for each. With both options struggling in their roles, it may be time to go a different direction with sophomore D’Eriq King, who played QB in high school.

King’s career is off to a similar start as former QB Greg Ward Jr., who began his career as a wide receiver before making the transition to quarterback. Like King, Ward was used as a tertiary option at wideout along with taking sporadic handoffs for all of his freshman season and the early portion of his sophomore year before making the transition to starting QB.

With two years left of eligibility, it may be time to let King control the offense or at least gain an increased role within it. King has already shown the ability to complete passes already in his college career

For Applewhite and the Cougars, it’s now or never.

“It doesn’t matter who you play, there’s no off week,” he said. “There’s no team that you walk in and say, ‘This is one we’re going to get.’ It just doesn’t happen like that.”

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