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Three straight wins has UH football ‘trending in the right direction’

UH football has strung together three straight wins, keeping its hopes of an AAC title alive. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

UH football has strung together three straight wins, keeping its hopes of an AAC title alive. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

After a 2-3 start, UH football has begun to right ship starting with its Week 6 comeback victory over Memphis.

Down 26-7 early in the fourth quarter against the Tigers, something clicked for the Cougars.

A season that appeared to be on the brink of completely derailing suddenly took a 180. UH has been a different team since that moment.

A 26-point fourth quarter, highlighted by two Cougars’ touchdowns in a 59-second span with a perfectly executed onside kick sandwiched in between, and UH had pulled off an improbable comeback to defeat Memphis.

“That (win over Memphis) was a huge confidence boost for us,” said senior quarterback Clayton Tune. “We felt like we hadn’t been playing to our standard up to that point. Being able to find a way to win that game at the end, was huge for our momentum as an offense and we just continue to build on it.”

Senior linebacker Donavan Mutin echoed Tune, saying that the win served as an important reminder to the defense about their identity.

“We have confidence in who we are and we’ve had confidence in the team we thought we were going to be going into the year,” Mutin said. “Ups and downs came but making sure that we realize we’re still that team, that win (over Memphis) helped us do that. Like man, we’re still that team.”

Flipping the script

Following the victory over Memphis, UH began to execute in a way that it had failed to over the first half of the season.

First-quarter offense, which was nonexistent for the Cougars over their first six games, suddenly began to show up as the UH offense put up 14 first-quarter points in its next two games against Navy and USF.

Receivers like senior KeSean Carter, redshirt freshman Samuel Brown and junior Peyton Sawyer stepped up, making big plays for a UH receiving core that has been without two starters due to injury.

“They’ve stepped up and filled that void,” Tune said. “I’m really happy with how they’ve stepped in and played. I expect them to continue to make plays because I know they will and they expect me to put the ball where it needs to be. I’ve gotten really comfortable with all those guys which is good.”

Redshirt freshman running back Stacy Sneed emerged, giving the Cougars a new weapon in the backfield after starter Ta’Zhawn Henry underwent surgery to repair an injured ankle. In two games seeing significant playing time, Sneed has made his presence felt, putting together a 100-yard rushing performance against Navy and a two-touchdown game the following week against USF.

 “He’s so elusive,” Tune said of Sneed. “Rarely does the first guy ever make the tackle on him. He’s always making guys miss, breaking tackles.”

The offensive line, which hadn’t exhibited much continuity early in the season, has started to come together and improve in both its ability to free up holes for the Cougars’ running backs as well as give Tune enough time in the pocket to find his receiver.

“I think our offense is starting to gel,” said UH head coach Dana Holgorsen. “We’re starting to gel around (Tune) with everybody.”

Defensively, the Cougars have gotten off the field when it mattered most, something they had failed to do against UTSA, Texas Tech, Rice and Tulane early in the season.

The UH defense hasn’t given up the big play, creating turnovers and holding its ground in the red zone to force field goals.

“We emphasize getting off the field so having those outcomes is really good,” said senior safety Thabo Mwaniki said. “Bend don’t break. It’s all heart.”

All this has resulted in more consistency from the Cougars instead of just playing well in spurts here and there as they did for the majority of their first six games.

While Holgorsen says his team still hasn’t played a fundamentally sound game from start to finish, the UH head coach believes his team is headed in the right direction.

Holgorsen said the Cougars’ most recent win over USF was nearly a full 60-minutes of solid football.

“Close to being a complete game,” Holgorsen said following UH’s win over USF.

One step at a time

At 3-1 in American Athletic Conference play, UH knows it will need some help if it is to reach the conference championship game for a second consecutive season.

Tulane, who UH lost to in its AAC opener, sits atop the conference with a perfect 4-0 record. Cincinnati and UCF both have 3-1 records in AAC play, the same as UH, but the Cougars don’t have either of these teams on their regular season schedule. Both Cincinnati and UCF will play Tulane before the regular season ends, benefitting the Cougars since one team has to lose in those games. 

While UH players and coaches are aware of where the team stands in the AAC and what it will take to reach the conference championship game, the Cougars are taking things one day at a time.

“It’s a game-to-game mentality,” Tune said. “The scenario doesn’t matter if we don’t go out and do what we’re supposed to do.”

One more loss would likely knock UH out of the mix for the AAC title which is why the Cougars can’t fix their eyes too far down the road.

“We can’t afford to have another conference loss,” Tune said. “We know that. That’s why we’re taking each game one game at a time and just controlling what we can control.”

Holgorsen is confident his team has what it takes to run the tables and finish off the regular season with seven straight victories regardless of the fact that they are shorthanded at some key positions.

“We are a resilient team,” Holgorsen said.  “We don’t panic when people go down and other people got to go in. I think we’ve got a good core nucleus of older guys that it means a bunch to.”

While there is still a long way to go, the Cougars have swung momentum in their favor, making  a conference title, which seemed close to impossible just weeks ago, a legitimate possibility if UH continues to build on the good things it has done over its last three games.

“We’re trending in the right direction,” Tune said.

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