Cougars’ defense shows up in big way against Mustangs

DALLAS — A revived Cougar defense got back on track over the weekend against SMU, ushering two interceptions and a forced fumble that helped UH secure the win and a tie for first place in the Conference USA West Division.

The Cougars held SMU to 127 yards rushing, but were loose in pass coverage, surrendering 318 yards through the air. The defense kept the Mustangs at bay, though, allowing SMU to complete only seven of 15 third-down conversions. Head coach Kevin Sumlin said he was proud of his team’s performance on the road.

“It’s a work in progress,” Sumlin said. “Our guys are starting to understand what we are doing a bit more. Our gameplans on both sides of the ball were very good. It gave our guys a chance to play fast, execute and get some of our best players on defense and isolate them.”

Sumlin said that his linebackers’ performance over the last three weeks has been effective against offensive schemes.

The linebacker trio — Sammy Brown, Marcus McGraw and Matt Nicholson — combined for 20 tackles on the night. Brown delivered a stellar performance making four tackles for a loss, two sacks and a forced fumble.

“It’s going to be a cat-and-mouse game,” Sumlin said. “If we can get both of those guys going (McGraw and Brown) in that protection, one of them is going to get single blocked — and that is the theory of the defense.”

The two interceptions were made in the second half by McGraw and Jacky Candy.

In his first collegiate start, Candy made an interception in the third quarter to prevent an SMU score in prime field position.

McGraw made one of two picks in the victory recording his first career interception. McGraw picked off SMU quarterback Kyle Padron, returning the interception 38 yards at the 5:19 mark in the fourth quarter.

“It was wonderful and it’s been a long time coming,” McGraw said. “My teammates used to bother me about a few drops I had earlier in my career, but I finally got one. It feels great.”

Sumlin said that the win on Saturday was a team victory, and that all three phases of the team came together.

“I felt our defense made some critical plays,” he said. “Obviously our special teams made some real good plays. I thought we handled things really well.”

Nicholson posted five solo tackles, one for a loss. The senior linebacker also recovered a fumble in the first half that led to three points.

“I couldn’t be any more proud of the team,” Nicholson said. “We needed this badly. Everybody wanted it and everybody came to play, so we couldn’t be any happier with what we put out on the field.”

Nicholson said that the three turnovers made by the defensive squad contributed to their overall success.

“Turnover ratio is such a huge part of winning games,” he said. “Our offense did a good job of holding on to the ball and we got some takeaways.”

Sumlin and defensive coordinator Brian Stewart have experimented with defensive end Kelvin King, alternating him on the line and at linebacker.

It paid off when he registered a sack that forced the Mustangs to kick a field goal to make it 31-20 with 12:38 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Though the Cougars (4-3, 3-1)came out with the 45-20 win over the Mustangs, the team has its eyes set on the upcoming conference match with Memphis on Saturday.

McGraw said he believes the team still has what it takes to win a C-USA championship.

“Right now, we are back to where we want to be with our goal of winning a conference championship,” McGraw said. “As a team, no matter what happened last week, we are still going to have to win this week.”

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