UH gets defensive in win

The Cougars allowed SMU to rush for just 26 yards on 24 attempts and held them to 5-15 on third down conversions. UH did not allow a touchdown until the fourth quarter. It was the second time this season that UH has held a Conference USA opponent in single digits. | Brianna Leigh Morrison/The Daily Cougar

Unexpected heroes carried the Cougars to their 37-7 win against SMU on Saturday.

It was the Cougars’ defense that starred, and while it might not have been the type of game that the record-breaking crowd at Robertson Stadium came out to see, it might have been just the type of win that the Cougars needed.

“Quite frankly,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said. “I think it was good for us to be in a game like that going into Tulsa.

“The last five, six weeks, our guys have been standing on the sidelines during the third quarter. For them to play a whole game and really push themselves, stretch a little bit. I think that’s good because what we want to accomplish, these next few weeks are championship weeks.”

The Cougars’ defense held the Mustangs scoreless until 8:33 remained in the fourth quarter, and came up with crucial stops on third downs and in the red zone.

With the score still within reach at 13-0, the Mustangs drove 77 yards to the UH four-yard line for a first down. SMU would only go backwards from there after tackles for a loss by senior linebackers Marcus McGraw and Sammy Brown on first and second down, respectively.

Junior linebacker Phillip Steward killed any hope of a Mustang score on third down, picking off SMU quarterback J.J. McDermott in the end zone.

“I thought I wasn’t going to catch it,” Steward said. “I just stuck my hand out there and it stuck — I grabbed it.

“They’re a passing offense, so I knew this week, we were going to get some chances to get our hands on the ball and as a defense, we went out and executed.”

Prior to the game, Steward said he would have a big day in coverage.

“This morning when I woke up, I told coach, ‘I’m good for two of them today,’” he said.

Steward almost made good on his proclamation later in the second half.

“And then the second one, I just dropped. I just looked and it fell out of my hands, but at least the receiver didn’t catch it, so I did pretty good.”

Junior cornerback D.J. Hayden came up with several key plays for the Cougars, forcing a fumble, breaking up two passes in the second half and catching James Richardson on a 54-yard kickoff return that looked like it was destined to go for six.

Without starting running back Zach Line, the Cougars held the Mustangs to just 24 rushing yards on 26 attempts, and stopped SMU two-thirds of the time on third down.

“I thought those huge stops on third down and getting us the ball back early when we were just kicking field goals was huge,” senior quarterback Case Keenum said. “No matter what we did, they just kept going out there and making stops — the goal-line stands, causing them to kick a field goal and then miss, and Phillip Steward picking that one off — that’s huge, that’s big time.”

The Mustangs’ defense was the toughest that the Cougars have seen all season, as they kept Keenum scrambling on a regular basis, and did not allow UH to score a touchdown until senior running back Michael Hayes got loose for a 36-yard score with 46 seconds to go in the first half.

“They made us earn everything we got tonight,” Keenum said. “It was a tough win, but that’s why you play football, to play good teams. That’s a really good football team.”

Keenum had an ordinary night by his standards, completing 30-of-45 passes for 318 yards and one touchdown, while running in another score.

The Cougars did a decent job of moving the ball but struggled scoring inside of the red zone, giving junior kicker Matt Hogan a season-high three field goal attempts and makes.

“We weren’t able to score as many touchdowns as we’d like to in the red zone,” Sumlin said. “I think that’s one area where we need to improve. We got clicking a little bit in the second half, we just need to be a little bit more patient with what we’re doing.”

UH broke out of its funk with a play-action pass, where Hayes’ hurdle of the pile was convincing enough to direct all attention away from Justin Johnson, who scampered in for the score on a 12-yard pass from Keenum.

“That was a huge play,” Keenum said. “Justin is a great utility guy — he does everything for us.

“Fourth down, I wouldn’t rather go to anybody else in that situation. He made a great play. That’s everybody preparing well, coaches, great gameplan from Kliff and the offensive coaches. That’s how you draw it up, it was fun.”

Johnson led the Cougars in receiving with nine grabs for 99 yards and one touchdown.

With a strong wind blowing, Keenum and senior receiver Patrick Edwards missed on several attempted deep hookups. Edwards finished with five receptions for 38 yards.

Keenum said that the way the Cougars played on defense was the best he’s ever seen played by UH at Robertson Stadium. It will be imperative for the defense to come out with a strong performance against the Golden Hurricane on Friday.

“The only thing that matters right now is us going to play Tulsa,” Keenum said.

“I think the level of play at the end of the year, it steps up. I think we’re stepping up. And I think our opponents’ level of play is going to step up as well. That’s something you have to expect that you have to come out and prepare for.”

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