Like Cubs fans waiting for a World Series title, or Texans fans just waiting to make the playoffs, the Cougar faithful have long hoped to one day see a team with a defense as good as the team's offense. Well, Houston fans, the wait is over. In UH's two biggest games of the year, the defense has been measurably better than even the formidable Cougar offense.
That's not a put-down of Houston's offensive attack, which continues to lead the nation in passing offense, total offense and scoring offense. (One more stat, just for kicks - Houston is 13th in the country in average yardage per rush, as well.)
But don't forget that Houston's fast-break offense means that the Cougar defense spends more time on the field, and has to face more plays per game, than basically anybody else in the country. The average NCAA defense faces 69 snaps per game. Houston's faces 82. If you were to take Houston's defense down to 69 snaps per game, they would be 17th in the nation in total defense. The Cougar first-string defense has allowed exactly one touchdown in each of its last four games.
Every unit on the defense has stepped up. On the line, guys like Eric Braswell, David Hunter and Dominic Miller have improved against the run, and gotten pressure on the quarterback to help out a young secondary.
The linebacking corps has been nothing short of stellar. Four-year starter Marcus McGraw leads the team in tackles yet again with 120. Fellow senior Sammy Brown, despite battling some recent injuries, has five more tackles for loss on the year than anybody else in the country. True freshman Derrick Matthews has been a revelation, and is the unquestionable future star of the group. And Phillip Steward, in addition to his 70 tackles (8 for a loss) has shown great coverage skills, with 9 pass deflections, and 4 interceptions.
Cornerbacks Zach McMillian, a sophomore, and D.J. Hayden, a junior college transfer, have been everything you could have hoped for, despite their lack of experience. Senior safety Nick Saenz has been improved, and sophomores Kent Brooks and Thomas Bates have been solid, as well.
In the team's most important games of the year - wins over SMU and Tulsa where Houston had all the pressure in the world on it - the offense struggled a little in the first half, scoring just 13 first half points in each game. But in both cases, the defense dominated the game from start to finish to secure the win.
In those big wins in the two most recent games, Houston's defense has allowed just 2.7 yards per rush, and 5.3 yards per pass attemptt. Against two traditional offensive powers, the defense has forced more turnovers (six) than they have allowed scoring drives (five). In 15 of the 26 drives (58%) the Cougar defense has been on the field, they did not allow a single first down.
On Saturday, the Cougar defense will get its stiffest test of the year. Southern Mississippi has scored 27+ points in each of its last ten games, averaging over 40 points per game in that span. The Golden Eagles are balanced, with a 3,000 yard passer in Austin Davis, and a stable of running backs leading USM to 5.3 yards per carry on the year.
Southern Miss represents Houston's first ranked opponent of the year, and the pressure and scrutiny of a nationally-televised game on ABC, with the BCS just four quarters away, will dwarf even the atmosphere two weeks ago when College GameDay was on campus. But Houston fans have every reason to be confident in the talent and composure of their team.
Especially the defense.