Saturday evening was supposed to be the grand opening of Houston's victory parade through a watered down schedule in their last season in Conference USA. The Cougar second-stringers were supposed to be in by the third quarter. Instead, it was the visiting Texas State Bobcats who controlled the game from beginning to end, en route to a 30-13 upset victory.
Coming off a 13-win season, and losing to a team playing its first game as a member of the FBS, there's obviously plenty of blame to go around. Notably,
-Quarterback David Piland. The redshirt season behind Case Keenum was supposed to better prepare Piland for the starting job. Instead, Piland looked rusty. He looked scared in the pocket. He forced throws that weren't there, telegraphed his passes, and missed open receivers when he had them. The impressive-for-his-age pocket presence he showed as a true freshman was utterly gone.
-The young receiving corps. They didn't consistently get open against a less talented secondary, they dropped balls, and Daniel Spencer committed a key fumble. All-everything recruit Deontay Greenberry did not catch a pass.
-The offensive line. They weren't awful, but as the most veteran unit on the offense, they weren't great, especially given that this is one of the least talented defensive lines they'll face all year.
-The entire defense. The pass rush had its moments (four sacks) but didn't get enough consistent pressure. The Cougar defense's long-time Achilles' Heel, the mobile quarterback-led, run-heavy, read-option offense, came back to bite them yet again. Quarterback Shawn Rutherford kept the Cougar defense fooled all day long, and running back Marcus Curry seemed to have a gear that nobody else on the Cougar defense could reach.
-The coaching staff. They had the entire off-season to prepare for Texas State's offense, the same offense they were running last year. And yet they couldn't dial up a scheme to stop the read option. They had Houston's backs consistently playing several yards deep off of Texas State's receivers, even after the Bobcats consistently hurt the Coogs with short out passes. Athletics Director Mack Rhoades went out on a limb to hire Tony Levine with his non-traditional resume, and Levine caused a couple raised eyebrows by tabbing an offensive coordinator with zero FBS experience. After Saturday's fiasco, those look like bad hires until proven otherwise.
Not helping with the general sense of worry that is palpable among the Cougar faithful is the fact that two of the most talented teams on Houston's schedule are coming up in the next two weeks, in Louisiana Tech and UCLA. The Bulldogs hurt the Cougars with the read option a year ago, and the Bruins ran all over Rice in their season opener using a similar attack.
But as many mistakes as were made on Saturday night, a greater mistake would be to give up on the Cougar season. Despite their best efforts to prove the contrary, we know that this is not an untalented team. It's another four weeks before Conference USA play starts. And look no farther than Tulsa's 15-point loss to Iowa State and SMU's blowout defeat at the hands of Baylor for evidence that C-USA's west division is squarely up for grabs.
Look to 2010 Virginia Tech for inspiration. The Hokies lost their first two games to Boise State and FCS member James Madison before reeling off 11 straight victories, including an ACC championship. Do the Coogs have a similar run in them? It's up to every Cougar player and coach to look deep inside themselves and find out.