I said before the game that I would be happy with a victory any way it came over UTEP. A win over the Miners never seems to come easy, and sure enough, Houston got its fifth all-time win over UTEP, and its fourth that included a rally from a double-digit deficit. The Miners were in it right to the end, and had a great chance to score in the closing seconds and send the game to overtime, but came up just short.
That said, I may have made a liar of myself, because I don't feel all that optimistic after the victory.
I'm even more convinced than I was before that Houston's offense stacks up with anybody in the country. UTEP doesn't have a great defense, but in terms of overall talent, they're probably in the top half of Conference USA. And the Cougars made them look like a high school junior varsity squad. Houston averaged better than 10 yards per pass attempt, and better than 8 yards per carry, including a pair of second half scoring plays that went over 70 yards. The Cougar offense was faster, stronger, better, and more well-prepared than the Miner defense.
Big props to the Houston offensive line, in particular, which after a shaky performance against Louisiana Tech, held a great pocket for Case Keenum, and broke open some big holes for the running backs.
But defensively for the Coogs, there's a lot of work to do. D.J. Hayden, Houston's best corner back through the first four games, was injured and didn't play. And UTEP is almost certainly a better offensive team than they showed prior to Thursday. But that's no excuse for letting a team that graduated all five of its starters on the offensive line last year have a running back go off for 240 yards on 22 carries.
The Cougar defense was entirely too feast or famine. Houston had an impressive four sacks of Nick Lamaison, but I don't remember many other plays where they got any sort of pass rush at all. I'd rather see no sacks, but constantly getting enough pressure to force the opposing QB to make quick decisions, than four sacks and all day in the pocket the rest of the game. Despite giving up 271 yards on the ground, the defense actually held the Miners to three yards or fewer on nearly half of their rush attempts (17 of 37), but gave up a staggering eleven runs of ten yards or more.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Cougar D's second quarter, which featured a Nick Saenz interception that set up the offense with a short field, followed by a Marcus McGraw fumble return for a touchdown. Those two possessions helped rally the entire team from a dreadful first quarter. But after the two possessions' worth of feasting, there was a whole lot of famine the rest of the way. Even the gamewinning "stop" consisted of a 55-yard Miner drive which ended with an open receiver making a drop in the end zone on fourth and long. Better hands, or a slightly higher pass, and we may still be playing football.
Houston's offense, despite the 49 points and 713 yards of total offense, could have been better, as well. They hurt themselves with penalties, including a holding call that nullified a touchdown pass (the Cougars were forced to settle for a field goal on the possession), and the receivers recorded eight drops, by my count. To put that in perspective, Keenum completed 30 passes, so more than one out of every five catchable balls he threw was dropped. Ugly.
ECU, which has a better offense top to bottom than UTEP, has to be licking their chops. (Or rather, they'll get around to licking their chops after they play North Carolina this weekend.) Further down the line, Tulsa, with a much better offensive line than UTEP's, will watch film of this game, and believe they can run for 1,000 yards against the Cougars.
If I'm being too much of a downer after an exciting win, I apologize. But I remember the 2009 season, when the Miners exposed our defensive shortcomings, and torched us when we were the #12 team in the country. Now we're 5-0, likely to be ranked after this week, with UTEP in the rear-view mirror. But if the defense doesn't get shored up significantly (and soon), and if the whole team doesn't cut down on penalties and mental errors, somebody else will be our UTEP. We have a long ways to go.