UH FOOTBALL: Cougars know C-USA West is still up for grabs

If the Associated Press No. 17 Cougars want to win the Conference USA West Division, Saturday’s matchup with SMU is basically a must-win situation.

UH (5-1, 1-1 C-USA) trails the Mustangs (3-3, 2-0) by a game in the West. A loss this weekend would essentially place the Cougars three games behind SMU because the Mustangs would own the head-to-head tiebreaker. Although SMU went winless in C-USA last season, head coach Kevin Sumlin knows his team will face a much-improved Mustangs squad at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

‘You can see how they’ve improved since (SMU head coach) June Jones started there,’ Sumlin said. ‘They’re beyond dangerous ‘hellip; They have talent, a good scheme and are well coached. That’s the reason why they’re tied for first in the West.’

SMU’s pass-heavy offense should provide a tough challenge for UH’s defense. Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell has thrown for more than 350 yards twice this season, often hooking up with the Mustangs’ all-time leader in catches, Emmanuel Sanders.

Sanders, who leads the nation in punt return average this season (22.62 yards per return), could also create trouble for the Cougars’ special teams unit.

Linebacker Marcus McGraw said he expects to see an inspired Mustangs’ offense Saturday. He knows SMU has not forgotten about the 12-point fourth-quarter deficit that UH overcame to win last season’s meeting.

‘They have a high-powered offense and a good quarterback, and they remind me of our offense a little, so it’s going to be a good game,’ McGraw said. ‘They are going to come out very focused and prepared after last year. A lot of things build up to it, but they are going to give us their best shot, and we have to be ready for it.’

Mitchell and Sanders aren’t the Mustangs’ only weapons. Running back Shawnbrey McNeal has become an important part of SMU’s Run-and-Shoot offense. He has been reliable in clutch situations, helping his team seal victories over UAB and Stephen F. Austin by finding the end zone with less than five minutes remaining in each game.

McNeal will face a UH defense that has seen several changes to its starting lineup because of injuries. Although most of the healthy members of the Cougars’ defensive line lack experience, Sumlin appears to be confident in his young players.

‘A lot of the freshmen on the defensive line have played this year, and they will continue to play the rest of the year,’ Sumlin said. ‘We need those young guys to step up. It’s really speeding up their development, but they’re talented enough and they’re playing hard enough. We just have to keep them going in the right direction.’

UH’s potent offense will attempt to take some pressure off the defense, but may have trouble holding on to the ball against an aggressive Mustangs’ defense. SMU is tied for second in the nation with 13 interceptions this season and is fourth in the country with 20 takeaways.

Case Keenum must watch out for Mustangs safety Rock Dennis, who has four interceptions this season. However, if the offensive line provides sufficient protection for the junior quarterback, he could put up huge numbers against a defense that has allowed 30.67 points per game this season.

Despite his success against talented defenses, Keenum is not taking anything for granted.

‘(SMU) has improved a bunch. I knew they were good last year,’ Keenum said. ‘They were really close on a lot of games last year and this year … We know they’re going to come in here and play tough, so we’re going to practice a lot this week.’

The Cougars do not control their destiny’ when it comes to winning their division.’ Because of’ a 58-41 loss to’ UTEP’ (3-4, 2-1) on Oct. 3,’ UH’ must win the rest of its conference contests and needs the Miners to lose one more game against a C-USA opponent. If UTEP loses more than once, UH might have more breathing room.

Defensive tackle Isaiah Thompson recognizes that another defeat would be quite’ detrimental to the Cougars’ goals.’

‘Now that we are back in conference play, the other games don’t matter,’ Thompson said. ‘We were 0-1 before Tulane. Now we are 1-1, so the season starts over. Even though we have a winning overall season, technically we don’t, because we’re 1-1 in conference play. We reached our preseason goals. Now it’s time for us to reach our conference goals.’

Saturday’s game is significant not only because it will have a huge impact on the C-USA West Division standings, but also because it is Homecoming. UH will play at Robertson Stadium for the first time since Sept. 26, and McGraw is one of many players who want to play in front of a large and raucous crowd.

‘It should be a great Homecoming after being away for a month,’ McGraw said. ‘The crowd brings great energy. You may come to the game a little down, but once you walk around the stadium and hear the people yelling and cheering for you, it really gets you going.’

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