The 2012 Houston Cougar football season had not exactly been turning out memorably long before D.J. Hayden's freak injury. One unfortunate collision in practice later, and the season nearly went from poor in terms of wins and losses to catastrophic in terms of a lost life. Thanks to the UH emergency staff, and the Memorial Hermann Texas Trauma Institute, an injury that was described as fatal in 95 percent of cases ended up not claiming the life of Hayden, both one of the most talented and popular members of this year's Cougars.
As we let our gaze slowly turn back to football, we realize that the injuries have truly piled up, not just Hayden's, but the more commonplace football-type injuries as well. Running back Charles Sims, the most important player on the offense, missed last week's game with an injury, the second game he has missed this year. Sims is questionable for this week's key match-up at Marshall. Starting senior offensive lineman Jacolby Ashworth will miss the final true roadtrip of his college career. Daniel Spencer, the team's leading receiver, will be out on Saturday as well. And for good measure, defensive lineman Tomme Mark is out, and quarterback David Piland was limited in practice this week.
In what has already been a season full of excuses for the Coogs, the one that may have been most understandable (seeing the team struggling to focus on football after the near-death of their teammate) was lost on the dwindling numbers of the Cougar faithful. Saturday's announced attendance was 25,827. The actual number of butts in seats at kickoff was surely much lower. By the time Ryan Jackson scampered into the end zone to prevent Houston's first home shutout since 1994, Robertson Stadium may have as well been hosting an intrasquad soccer scrimmage, for the number of fans present, and the level of interest they had.
There will be much riding on the last two games of the season. On Saturday, the Cougars travel to Huntington, West Virginia and attempt to keep their bowl hopes alive. Regardless of the outcome of that game, next week's contest against Tulane will be emotionally charged, as the Cougars will look to close out historic Robertson Stadium on a positive note.
Houston's chances in those games will be very much affected, from a personnel standpoint, by all of the injuries. Although Thomas Bates did a passable job filling in for Hayden against Tulsa, the Cougars will need all of the defensive backs they can find against the Thundering Herd's aerial attack on Saturday. As for Sims, the Cougars are 4-0 this year when he rushes for 100 yards or more, 0-4 when he rushes for fewer than 100 yards, and 0-2 (combined score: 78-13) when he does not play.
But more importantly, the team will have to get itself in the right frame of mind to play at least two more football games. That clearly wasn't the case Saturday. Although nobody was making excuses, guys like Piland, Zachary McMillian and Phillip Steward all described the team as still "emotional" over what happened. And I'm in no way suggesting that you can blame a bunch of 18-22 year old young men for that. But every member of the team is going to want to right the ship in time to make a bowl, close out the Rob in style, send the seniors out with a 13th game, and earn that all-important extra practice time. And it's going to take a stark turnaround in the energy of the team on Saturday to make that possible.
What happened to D.J. Hayden is simultaneously tragic and miraculous. And in the grand scheme of things, whether it happens in the midst of a 7-6 season or a 4-8 season is irrelevant. But wouldn't it be cool if it ended up sparking a turnaround?