FOOTBALL: Cougars remain focused on C-USA
Despite a 3-0 record and a top-15 ranking, the Associated Press No. 12 Cougars appear to be worried only about Saturday’s game against UTEP.
UH and the Miners (1-3) seem to be headed in different directions entering Saturday’s 8 p.m. kickoff, but head coach Kevin Sumlin is not taking anything for granted.
‘(UTEP head coach) Mike Price said it best yesterday in his press conference when he said, ‘I’m at my best in these situations.’ There is no doubt about that,’ Sumlin said. ‘Last year, they were 0-3 and then their first league game was Central Florida, and they beat them 58-13. So who knows what’s going to happen?’
Three of the last four meetings between the Miners and Cougars, including UH’s 42-37 comeback victory in 2008, were decided by a combined 11 points. Sumlin said this should be enough motivation for the Cougars to get off to a good start Saturday at the Sun Bowl in El Paso.
‘We have to be prepared to play,’ Sumlin said. ‘We were down 28-9 in the third quarter last year and 28-16 to start the fourth quarter. That’s enough to get our attention for this game.’
The Cougars have outscored their opponents 34-7 in the fourth quarter this season, proving they can deliver in crunch time. But this late-game success has occurred against non-conference opponents, and quarterback Case Keenum realizes that conference games are completely different.
‘In our league, any team can come out and play hard and win any given Saturday,’ Keenum said. ‘It’s going to be a challenge every week, and every team will have a good strategy against us and play hard.’
Before the season, Sumlin said UH’s first goal was earning a spot in the C-USA Championship Game. Although his team has moved up in the polls, he is still focused on that objective.’
‘It’s our first league game, and we’re approaching it the same way,’ Sumlin said. ‘We have many goals, but they all start with where we are in the West (division) in C-USA.
‘As our team has said from day one, our season is not about who we are playing. Every field is the same. It’s about us and how we handle things. As we continue to get better, that’s our challenge.’
Despite the Miners’ early-season struggles, which include a 64-7 loss at No. 2 Texas last Saturday, Keenum knows they are more than capable of defeating the Cougars.
‘UTEP is a talented team however they are playing, so they will come and play us hard,’ Keenum said. ‘It doesn’t matter if we went 3-0 or 0-3 in the past three games. It’s a 0-0 season now, and we have to continue everything the same way.’
Led by quarterback Trevor Vittatoe, the traditionally potent UTEP offense has been held to only 242.8 yards and 17.2 points per game this season. Although these numbers don’t display much success, Sumlin knows the Miners’ quarterback is due for a breakout performance.
‘Trevor Vittatoe did not play very well last week. That is not characteristic of him,’ Sumlin said. ‘He is one of the better quarterbacks in this league and in this area of the country.”
Vittatoe has two explosive targets with a knack for creating big plays in Jeff Moturi and Kris Adams. Cornerback Jamal Robinson said he and his teammates must be well prepared if they want to prevent UTEP from lighting up the scoreboard.
‘They have a great quarterback and great receivers,’ Robinson said. ‘We have to stay focused on the task at hand. We’re just looking to practice hard, focus on (UTEP) and get the plays down.’
Despite receiving early-season praise from media and fans, the Cougars do not appear to be distracted. Although the level of competition will not be the same as it was in UH’s last two contests, Sumlin believes his team will continue to seek improvement.
‘(The accolades) are great for self-esteem and to create confidence, but you have to be honest about where you are and who you are because if you’re not, then you will quit getting better,’ Sumlin said. ‘If we don’t keep getting better, our chances for defeat go up immensely. That’s our challenge and these guys are handling it.’