After a season-opening loss to lowly Texas State, breaking in a new offensive coordinator, and with conference play still three weeks away, improvement was the name of the game for Houston on Saturday night. The scoreboard wasn't favorable, with Louisiana Tech beating the Cougars 56-49, but was there improvement? Yes and no.
The answer is a resounding yes if you're looking at the quarterback position. A week after looking scared and confused all night against Texas State, sophomore signal-caller David Piland threw 77 passes, and only a small handful weren't well-thrown. The 77 pass attempts was a UH single-game record (at a school that has thrown the ball around quite a bit), and his attempting that many passes without throwing an interception is an NCAA single-game record. Piland tossed 53 completions for 580 yards and four touchdowns, and every one of those numbers would have been markedly higher if not for a plethora of drops by the Cougar receivers.
The defense, on the other hand, was abysmal. It's one thing to give up 598 yards of total offense and 56 points to a team that's just carving you up with brilliant playcalling, a quarterback that's throwing perfect passes down field, and a receiving corps that's catching everything in the vicinity. But that wasn't the case. Bulldog quarterback Colby Cameron was good, but not great. Louisiana Tech helped Houston out by Cameron missing the occasional open receiver, and the Bulldog receivers dropping a few passes. But Houston's defense was brutal in their missed tackles, and their woeful inability to make defensive adjustments.
The Cougar defenders were trying to arm-tackle all night, and the Louisiana Tech playmakers had little trouble shrugging them off. Plays that should have been one-yard gains ended up going for 10+ and a first down all too frequently. I don't have yards after contact stats immediately available to me, but Louisiana Tech had an awful lot.
Even more frustrating was watching Louisiana Tech run the same play over and over again, and Houston never figuring out how to stop it. If you attended the game, stop me when this sounds familiar: Cameron takes the snap, puts the ball in his running back's chest, and looks right. If the Cougar linebacker on that side breaks out to help defend the two receivers on that side of the field, Cameron hands it off to the running back, who goes up the middle for a big gain. If the Cougar linebacker stays at home to try and stop the run, Cameron pulls the ball back and throws a bubble screen, which invariably goes for an eight-yard gain. That simple option read was probably run by Louisiana Tech in about half of their second-half offensive snaps. And the Cougars never had an answer. It would have been understandable if the offense, with just five days to prepare under a new coordinator, had struggled to that extent. But there's really no reason for Jamie Bryant's defense to fail to defend the same play so completely and so repeatedly.
Oh, committing 15 penalties for 138 yards isn't really a winning formula, either. Sadly, the complete lack of mental focus that leads to those staggering numbers wasn't even the team's biggest issue.
To try and end this on a positive note, I certainly liked Houston's fighting spirit in the game. They looked defeated for most of the opening loss to Texas State, whereas they actually looked like they were emotionally invested in the game against Louisiana Tech. Watching your team go down swinging is infinitely less upsetting than watching them just go through the motions.
That said, this team still has a long ways to go. The receiving corps needs to find a way to catch passes more consistently, the offensive line needs to find a way to open up bigger holes for Charles Sims in the running game, Piland needs to make sure he doesn't regress to how he played in the opener, and the defense, well, needs to improve most everything.
The Cougar season is very far from over, and the goal of a Conference USA championship is very much still there for the taking. But that's a long way off for a team that needs to find a way to win a football game before anything else.