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Thursday, June 1, 2023


COMMENTARY: No pressure, no problem for UH

For the first time this season, the No. 25 Cougars dominated a conference opponent from start to finish.

UH never trailed in Saturday’s 55-14 blowout victory over Memphis. In fact, the Cougars (9-2, 5-2 Conference USA) didn’t let up until they took a 55-14 lead in the third quarter.

Saturday’s win may have been a relief for head coach Kevin Sumlin, considering his team is used to earning comeback victories.

‘Every week – it may not look like it to the fans – I think our plan has been pretty good,’ Sumlin said. ‘Our execution was even better today. It’s good as a coach to not wait until the last minute of the game to have to decide on plays that are going to decide the game.’

The start of Saturday’s contest resembled the beginning of UH’s two losses this season, as the Cougars jumped out to early 14-0 lead.

This time, however, the offense continued to score instead of turning the ball over. This time, the defense did not crumble in key situations, allowing the Tigers (2-9, 1-6) to convert only six of 15 third-down attempts.

‘Our defense got off the field on third down, which we didn’t do a week ago,’ Sumlin said. ‘We’ve had problems with that, but (this week) we got the ball back, and we were able to score touchdowns.’

Of course, UH was playing against a Memphis squad that is far from exceptional. But when the Cougars took on Tulane, another C-USA bottom-feeder, they led by only 3 points at halftime.

So what’s changed since then? Perhaps it’s the team’s demeanor.

‘There were some guys out there having fun, and not playing what I would call tight, and cutting things lose,’ Sumlin said.

Now that the Cougars are no longer under the pressure of carrying a top-15 ranking, they can play freely. They are still battling for a conference title, but winning a C-USA championship garners much less attention than a top-15 team usually receives.

This is also the case for players.

Take quarterback Case Keenum for example. His statistics prove that he deserves to be part of the Heisman Trophy conversation. If you don’t believe me, look them up.

But now that Keenum’s team has lost two games to C-USA opponents, the media is not going to give him tons of attention. In turn, Keenum doesn’t have to worry about making himself available throughout the week for interviews on national television and syndicated radio shows.

Keenum is still in contention for several awards, most notably the one named after Davey O’Brien, but they don’t put a player in the same spotlight as the Heisman.’

Maybe these potential distractions never affected Keenum’s on-the-field performance. Only he knows the truth.

On Saturday, he certainly bounced back from a lackluster performance at Central Florida, in which he was 33-of-56.

Keenum threw for 405 yards and five touchdowns in less than 34 minutes of action Saturday. He also passed David Klingler to become the school’s all-time leader in career touchdown passes.

Keenum’s third touchdown pass of the game – a 9-yard connection with Tim Monroe – gave him the record with 92. He added two more scores to bump his career total to 94 before Cotton Turner replaced him the third quarter.

Before facing UCF, the junior from Abilene was emerging as a serious contender for the Heisman. Before facing Memphis, he had returned to dark horse status.

Is it crazy to say the Cougars are playing looser because the team’s leader is also doing so? Only the players know the truth.

Even if UH isn’t feeding off a more relaxed Keenum, it certainly plays much better when it isn’t worrying about rankings and awards.

SMU’s 34-31 loss to Marshall on Saturday allowed the Cougars to regain control of the C-USA West Division. This means a victory in next Saturday’s Bayou Bucket matchup with Rice (2-9, 2-5) will put UH in the C-USA title game.

Obviously, that’s a lot of pressure.

But if the Cougars just have fun and don’t allow that pressure to consume them, they may be able to outdo their outstanding performance against Memphis. Sumlin agrees.

‘There will be some good stuff out there for us if we handle our business and worry about us,’ he said.

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