It wasn't perfect, but it was progress. More importantly, it was finally a mark in the win column.
The Houston Cougars took care of their crosstown rivals the Rice Owls on Saturday with a 35-14 victory. It was head coach Tony Levine's first career regular-season victory, and despite the struggles to open the season, it puts the Coogs atop Conference USA's west division with a 1-0 conference record.
Many of the issues that have plagued UH this year were still present in the victory, but they were in much smaller amounts. The receiving corps dropped a couple of passes early, but collectively righted their ship as the game went on and had their best performance of the year. The penalty bug reared its ugly head early as Houston was called for five false start penalties, but that too improved later in the game. David Piland did throw 17 incomplete passes and an interception, but he finally broke his habit of playing well when the Cougars are hopelessly behind, and playing poorly when Houston has a chance to win. Piland played well enough for Houston to win, something we haven't been able to say in quite a while.
Speaking of things that haven't been true in a while, the most notable outcome from Saturday's game was the Cougar defense playing up to its billing. All off-season, it was the defense that looked like it could be the unit to lead the team, but that hadn't been the case through three games. On Saturday, the UH defense was one short field following an interception and one busted coverage from pitching a shutout. The Cougars got a consistent pass rush on Owl quarterback Driphus Jackson all game long, making it nearly impossible for him to get in any sort of rhythm. The Rice running attack that gouged Houston in a losing effort a year ago was stymied, averaging less than four yards a carry. If you include the sacks in the rushing stats, the Owls gained just two yards per rush.
Saturday's game was also the first time all year that Charles Sims has really gotten into the game. After being underused against Texas State, held in check against Louisiana Tech, and held out of the UCLA game, Sims exploded for 205 total yards and three scores on 28 touches.
It is worth mentioning that the game might have had a very different feel if Rice would have had quarterback Taylor McHargue available. The junior seemed to really come into his own last week against Marshall, accounting for 467 total yards and four touchdowns. But ultimately, whoever was playing quarterback for the Owls would have been playing from the seat of his pants much of the game, making it unlikely that McHargue's injury was the difference between victory and defeat.
For Houston, there's still work to do, to be sure. Three turnovers is still too many, eight penalties is still too many (the head-scratching third quarter pass interference call against D.J. Hayden notwithstanding) and the passing game still has plenty of room for improvement. But if the Cougars play as well as they did on Saturday for the next two weeks, they'll be 3-3 overall and 2-0 in conference play heading into a Thursday night showdown with SMU.
For the first time all year, that's something to be excited about.