Young squad proves talent, shows areas where improvement needed

Junior linebacker Derrick Mathews strolls into the endzone after an interception in the first quarter, giving UH its first lead of the day.  |  Justin Tijerina/The Daily Cougar

Junior linebacker Derrick Mathews strolls into the endzone after an interception in the first quarter, giving UH its first lead of the day. | Justin Tijerina/The Daily Cougar

Before chin straps were fastened and the teams took the field for the opening kickoff, I was curious to see whether UH could prove that it belonged on the big stage.

Despite the 47-46 loss, UH didn’t disappoint the 33,115 fans who attended the nationally televised contest with BYU. In a back-and-forth offensive slugfest, UH proved it could make plays in all three phases against a talented opponent.

Soon after freshman receiver Demarcus Ayers took a kickoff return 85 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, junior linebacker Derrick Mathews intercepted a pass and strolled 29 yards for a score on top of a bevy of offensive plays.

No moral victory

However, head coach Tony Levine was quick to point out that a close loss is still a loss. In the postgame press conference, Levine stressed that there are no moral victories in football, but he was proud of the way UH performed.

“There wasn’t a guy in that locker room — player, staff member or coach — who didn’t think we were going to win this game through the entire week and the three-and-a-half hours we were out there. They’re giving a great effort, and I am proud of them, but I didn’t let them know that there are no moral victories because they know that. We’re trying to win football games,” Levine said.

Though the stat sheet shows a BYU victory and UH is no longer receiving votes in the Associated Press top 25, UH did attain some national respect in the thrilling contest. Entering this game, many were skeptical as to whether UH was building toward a magical season, or picking up wins against teams with less talent before the tougher parts of the schedule humble the expectations of a mediocre team.

UH’s first five opponents were a mix of teams whose national profiles leave much to be desired — the compilation of Rice, UTSA, Southern, Temple and Memphis is not the same representation of high-level talent that BYU presented.

Mistakes were made

UH made several mistakes — the Cougars had three turnovers and penalties in crucial situations — but went toe-to-toe with BYU. If UH can correct its mistakes, competing for a conference title is not out of the question.

But with a young team, some mistakes are to be expected.

Areas for improvement

Freshman quarterback John O’Korn threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns with a 64 percent completion percentage, but also threw three interceptions, including the clincher with one minute remaining.

O’Korn tried to fit a pass to junior receiver Daniel Spencer, who was double covered. BYU defensive back Alani Fua stepped in front of the the throw. After a first down and a kneel down, BYU came away with its first victory outside Utah.

“He made some good plays; he made some bad plays. He’s young, and he’s going to get better and develop,” said senior receiver Xavier Maxwell, who had five catches for 136 yards and a touchdown.

Levine said O’Korn’s youth contributed to his mistakes.

“People here in our community are certainly going to get to know him over the next four years as an individual and a player … When you look out there, I think our fans and coaches forget he is an 18-year-old true freshman,” Levine said. “I had four other coaches come up to me after the game and say, ‘Wow, that quarterback is special.’”

UH also needs to improve its four-minute offense. With the lead and 3:26 remaining in the fourth quarter, UH received the ball with a chance to put the game away by getting two first downs. Instead, UH went backward and relinquished the ball to BYU with less than two minutes remaining.

On defense, UH forced three turnovers, sacked sophomore quarterback Taysom Hill eight times and gave the team a chance to win. However, BYU put up staggering offensive numbers. Hill, a quarterback known for his physical running style, threw for 417 passing yards and rushed for another 128 to lead his team in both categories.

BYU’s decision to integrate more passing into the offense caught UH off-guard, Mathews said.

“I really thought they were going to try to come out and run the ball. It really did surprise us that they tried to come out and pass the ball,” Mathews said.

Moving forward

With a conference game against Rutgers upcoming, UH’s young squad of playmakers has a lot to be happy about and much to work on.

“They are a good team; we are a good team. We still have six more to go. We are only halfway through it, and we have a lot more football to play,” Mathews said.

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  • I remain very excited about this Cougar football team. The defense continues to make crucial plays while allowing a lot of yardage. To go toe to toe with a marquis program like BYU says a lot. UH is still in a position to go to the Orange Bowl. All of the remaining games are winnable with UCF being the toughest challenge. BEAT RUTGERS!

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