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Sunday, May 28, 2023


FOOTBALL: Cougars search for comeback in C-USA standings

The Cougars need help to make the 2009 Conference USA Championship game because of their 37-32 setback against Central Florida on Saturday.

That loss allowed SMU to move one game ahead of UH for first place in the C-USA West Division. The Cougars (8-2, 4-2 C-USA) will still advance to the conference title game if they win their next two contests and the Mustangs (6-4, 5-1) lose once.

Although fans and analysts may be worried about what SMU does, head coach Kevin Sumlin said he is not. His focus appears to be on only what he can control: preparing for Saturday’s game against Memphis (2-8, 1-5).

‘There’s still a lot of football to play, and who knows what’s going to happen,’ Sumlin said. ‘We can’t be concerned with speculating, or worrying about what other people do. We have to worry about the games that we play and winning those games. Then we’ll see what happens.’

This week presents a different challenge for UH, as it will face a team that is not in contention for the C-USA title or attempting to qualify for a bowl game. Plus, the Tigers are playing under lame-duck head coach Tommy West, who was fired earlier this month, but is finishing this season.

Although Memphis has little reason to give its best effort Saturday at Robertson Stadium, Sumlin believes West and his team have too much dignity to quit.

‘There’s been a lot of controversy this year, particularly with Tommy being let go,’ Sumlin said. ‘(But) he has a tremendous amount of pride and so does that program,’ Sumlin said.

UH’s defense, which is allowing 462.1 yards per game this year, has struggled over the last three games. But this unit showed signs of progress against UCF, giving up only 393 yards.

One area where the defense has not displayed improvement, however, is getting off the field on third down.

The Knights converted seven of 15 third-down attempts Saturday. This statistic was magnified when UCF converted three consecutive third downs during a crucial fourth-quarter drive that resulted in a touchdown. Two of the three conversions were longer than 10 yards, compounding the Cougars’ frustration.

The Cougars’ defense will have a good chance to develop some confidence at noon Saturday, as Memphis is averaging only 21.8 points and 377.1 yards per game. The Tigers have scored more than 21 points only once in conference play – 35 in a victory over UTEP on Oct. 10.

Despite Memphis’ offensive struggles, Sumlin knows running back Curtis Steele is talented enough to keep UH’s defense on its heels.

‘Steele is one of the better running backs in this league,’ Sumlin said. ‘He’s closing in on 1,000 yards, with about 150 to go this year. He put 144 yards on Tennessee.’

Steele, who is averaging 105.9 rushing yards per game this season, has gained more than 100 yards on the ground in four of Memphis’ last five contests.

But the Tigers’ offensive arsenal contains more than Steele.

Receivers Duke Calhoun (6-4) and Carlos Singleton (6-9) will present a substantial size mismatch for the Cougars’ secondary, which does not have a player taller than 6-1.

At 230 pounds, Singleton appears better suited for the basketball court than the gridiron. But he ranks second among Memphis’ all-time leading receivers with 2,344 career yards. The only player above Singleton on that list is Calhoun, who has compiled 2,939 career receiving yards.

‘Singleton and Calhoun present issues for everybody,’ Sumlin said. ‘They’re going to give us some challenges defensively.’

On offense, UH will try to recover from a shaky performance at UCF. The Cougars gained 423 total yards in their loss to the Knights, but scored only one offensive touchdown during the first three quarters.

Although quarterback Case Keenum (4,194 yards, 31 touchdowns this season) never enjoys losing, he understands that defeat sometimes teaches a more valuable lesson than victory.

‘I’d like to think that ‘hellip; I’ve learned from last Saturday and became better from that game,’ Keenum said. ‘There’s a lot to learn from a win, but you might learn the most when you don’t win.’

Saturday will mark UH’s first home game in three weeks. After suffering a tough loss on the road last weekend, linebacker C.J. Cavness appears ready to feed off the energy that a large crowd can provide.

‘It will be fun to get back and play in front of all our fans,’ Cavness said. ‘Every time we play there, we play with high energy and passion. That’s what we need right now.’

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