FOOTBALL: UH defense lassos Mustangs

For all the credit the Cougars’ high-powered offense receives, it’s easy to forget about their defense.

The defense has been an integral part of UH’s success this season, including its No. 15 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25. Saturday’s 38-15 win over SMU at Robertson Stadium was a good example of how this unit can change the tone of a game.

The Cougars (6-1, 2-1 C-USA) forced three fumbles, two of which led to their first two touchdowns of the game. The third took at least three points away from the Mustangs (3-4, 2-1).’

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders became the first Mustang to cough up the ball when linebacker C.J. Cavness leveled him in the first quarter. This allowed linebacker Marcus McGraw to fall on the ball, giving UH possession at its 45-yard-line. Six plays later, running back Charles Sims scampered 20 yards to put the Cougars up 7-0.’

Defensive end Tyrell Graham created the second turnover, delivering a powerful hit that dislocated quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell’s non-throwing shoulder. Cavness, who recorded a career-high 18 tackles, was also involved in this play, pouncing on the loose ball at the SMU 1. One play later, running back Bryce Beall powered into the end zone to give UH a 14-0 lead.

In the third quarter, wide receiver Darius Johnson fumbled at the Cougars’ 2 after a 28-yard catch and run. Cavness was in the right place again, recovering the ball just before it rolled out of bounds.

These are only three of UH’s 13 fumble recoveries this season – four more than No. 11 Georgia Tech, No. 10 Oregon and No. 3 Texas.’

Head coach Kevin Sumlin knows he doesn’t have one of the nation’s most talented defenses. That is why he stresses answering the door when opportunity knocks.

‘It’s like I said two or three weeks ago, it’s about being opportunistic,’ Sumlin said. ‘You can create a turnover, but being opportunistic means you are able to score off of those turnovers. If we continue to do that, we will be able to win a lot of ball games, even ugly ones like tonight.’

But the defense did more than force turnovers Saturday.’

SMU did not convert one third down (0-for-10), was sacked five times and gained 256 of its 397 total yards when the game was out of reach.

Plus, UH had to defend two quarterbacks it did not prepare to see in Kyle Padron and Braden Smith. Despite the unexpected change, Cavness and his teammates stuck to their original strategy.

‘We knew No. 14 (Smith) liked to run the ball more than the other guys,’ Cavness said. ‘We had to read the guards and make sure they weren’t running any quarterback powers for him. Both the quarterbacks could throw and run, so we stuck to our game plan.”

After the Mustangs’ third fumble, the Cougars’ defense relaxed a little too soon. SMU took advantage, scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns that narrowed its deficit to 31-15. But that was as close as the Mustangs came to victory.

When a team has weapons like quarterback Case Keenum and wide receiver Tyron Carrier, it doesn’t need a stellar defense. But the offense was not its usual self Saturday, and it didn’t matter because of how the defense performed.

The offense shouldered most of the load against Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Mississippi State, but it still needed the defense to create turnovers at crucial times. There’s no doubt about it: the Cougars would not have their best record through seven games since 1990 if it weren’t for their defense.

Saturday’s victory places UH in a four-way tie with SMU, UTEP and Tulsa for first place in the C-USA West Division, but this season is far from over. If the Cougars are going to win their first conference title since 2006, their defense must continue to make big plays at big moments.

They will also need their fans to keep providing them with an extra bounce in their step.

‘The (fans’) energy had an effect in the first half. The way we came out and played, the way our defense fed off of it,’ Sumlin said. ‘I thought it was great playing at home. I hope we have another big crowd next week.”

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