Commentary Football

Piland, Levine hope to meet the raised bar

Redshirt junior David Piland will start the season at quarterback after winning a five-man race this spring and summer.   |  File photo/The Daily Cougar

Redshirt junior David Piland will start the season at quarterback after winning a five-man race this spring and summer. | File photo/The Daily Cougar

Only two members of a football team carry a win-loss record with them.

The head coach and quarterback bear the brunt of criticism when a team struggles but reap a bounty of praise from fans and media when they succeed. Most duos, including those at UH throughout the years, become synonymous with the success or failure of a certain era.

Tough act to follow

It’s tougher for UH’s current pair — head coach Tony Levine and redshirt junior David Piland — because both followed previous position owners who earned numerous accomplishments during their tenure.

Piland followed former quarterbacks Case Keenum and Kevin Kolb, who were Heisman Trophy candidates while commanding UH’s Air Raid offense. Before Levine grabbed the reins, Kevin Sumlin and Art Briles parlayed success at UH into head coaching gigs at universities in bigger conferences.

And, in the present, Levine and Piland are piloting the program at a crucial period in its history, which has created inward and outward pressures.

This season, UH joins the American Athletic Conference, which provides the biggest national stage it has had since the Southwest Conference dissolved in 1996. The American offers television contracts with ESPN and CBS Sports as enticements to its member institutions. The conference also features matchups with more nationally relevant programs than Conference USA ever could.

On campus, the Cougars are constructing a new $105 million stadium with the expectation that fans will fill the 40,000-seat stadium. Houstonians are notorious fair-weather fans who consistently only support winning teams.

New standard

After the team flirted with an at-large Bowl Championship Series bid and nearly captured an undefeated season in 2011 coupled with the success of the past five years, UH fans have higher expectations.

Even coaches and players would admit that missing a bowl game is unacceptable. After last season’s lackluster 5-7 finish in his first season at the helm, Levine again hitched his wagon to Piland, but the connection is not as strong.

Piland was handed the keys to the offense on Friday when he was named the Cougars’ starter, though it wasn’t with the strongest vote of confidence.

Two-quarterback system

Levine plans to play freshman quarterback John O’Korn, too. Levine declined to give specifics on the time split for Friday’s contest against Southern or the plan for future games. Levine didn’t say that the quarterback competition will continue, but his comments hinted at it.

When asked if O’Korn’s playing time would continue, Levine said, “you and Temple will find out at the same time.”

During his career, the Piland era hasn’t equaled the wins of his predecessors — as a starter he is 6-12.

Before Piland arrived, comeback wins were a staple of UH football. The team earned the nickname Cardiac Coogs for snatching victory when defeat seemed imminent. Under Piland, the Cougars didn’t win a game last season where they trailed. He seemed to struggle when the Cougars needed a drive to tie the game or when a drive was needed to give the defense a break and slow the opposing offense’s momentum.

Losing record

In 10 starts last season, Piland passed for 2929 yards with a 57 percent completion rate. In the Air-Raid offense, completion percentage is a key statistic because the Cougars’ offense competes at a high pace. When the quarterback fails to complete passes at a high percentage, a defense that already spends more time on the field than its opponent is stretched thinner.

However, he also had good games. Against Louisiana Tech, Piland threw for a Robertson Stadium record 580 yards and set an NCAA record with 77 attempts without an interception.

But if nothing else, Piland proved his resilience. He lost his starting job to former quarterback Crawford Jones with two games remaining during the season. He was heavily criticized by fans and media who longed for the memories that Keenum created.

Piland had a great spring practice to replant himself as the favorite to regain the job. He sought advice from Levine and Keenum and it worked.

Keenum said his advice to Piland was simple.

“Just don’t throw the ball to the other team,” he said after the Texans’ preseason game on Sunday.

With four years around the offense, he looks and sounds more confident, but that may not be enough. The stakes for Levine to make the correct decision as quarterback are high — another losing season would be a tough albatross to carry into a new stadium.

[email protected]

Leave a Comment