We called it a measuring stick game when Houston traveled up the road to Dallas to take on SMU on Thursday evening. And the Mustangs used that stick to give the Cougars a whipping of epic proportions. Both SMU and Houston set records in a 72-42 Pony victory - SMU for points scored, UH for points allowed.
The Cougars now sit at 3-4 on the year, with a 2-1 mark in Conference USA play. They still control their destiny in C-USA's west division, but barring a miracle turnaround, they will not factor into the conference race. And make no mistake, it has little to nothing to do with all of the talented players that Houston graduated last year.
Let's reiterate that last sentence, because it's important. Every program has years where they lose a stacked class to graduation, and struggle the following year. And while there are certainly plenty of talented players that are sorely missed for the Cougars right now, that is not their issue.
Poor preparation is their issue. And that falls 100% on the coaching staff.
Both the defensive and offensive lines returned mostly intact from last year. And despite some nice showings against the three previous cupcakes on the schedule, both lines continue to get dominated by good teams. Both have regressed measurably since last year.
The secondary returned most of its key players from last year, as well. Yet it continues to blow coverages and give up huge plays. On Thursday (with no help from an impotent pass rush) it made Garrett Gilbert, statistically the worst quarterback in the country, look like Davey O'Brien.
Arm tackling, leading to missed tackles, leading to big plays for the opposition, was a huge issue on Thursday, and has been a staple of the Cougar defense this year. It's one of the big reasons that Houston is giving up 13 more points per game than they did last year.
Offensively, the inability to hold onto the football has been inexcusable. The Cougar receiving corps, while young, has shown plenty of ability to run routes, get open, and make plays once they have the ball in their hands. What they haven't shown is the ability to consistently catch the football. And even when Houston does catch a pass, their three fumbles on Thursday gives them more fumbles lost (10) than they had all of last season.
Special teams were the worst offenders on Thursday. Expected to be a strength under head coach Tony Levine (a former special teams coordinator) and Jamie Christian, who came in with a very strong resume, the Cougar special teams ran one return man after the other out there, hoping to find somebody who could a) catch the ball, and b) not fumble it after he caught it. The one or two times that it actually happened, the rest of the team couldn't complete c) don't commit a holding penalty to back your team way up next to its own goal line.
Of course, the members of the special teams are hardly the only Cougars showing their lack of preparation and discipline in the penalty department. The Cougars are giving up 13 more penalty yards per game than last year. That's not always the most upsetting statistic, as long as you're committing penalties of being too aggressive within the framework of the game. But the myriad false starts and personal fouls that the Cougars have been stuck with all year long are indicative of a team that's just not being prepared well enough to play football.
The Cougar faithful (in their ever-dwindling numbers) had hoped that the 0-3 start would be a wake-up call for the team before conference play came around. But the alarm clock is ringing, and the Cougars have still yet to answer the bell.