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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Houston (13-1, 8-0)

In chronological order, every Houston three-and-out, not counting any from out of victory formation, on the 2011 season:

U.C.L.A. (W, 38-34)
1. 2nd quarter (10-7): sack, incomplete, complete.

North Texas (W, 48-23)
2. 4th quarter (48-23): complete, incomplete, incomplete.

Louisiana Tech (W, 35-34)
3. 1st quarter (0-0): run, incomplete, incomplete.
4. 2nd quarter (7-17): run, complete, complete.

Georgia State (W, 56-0)
5. 1st quarter (7-0): run, incomplete, incomplete.
6. 4th quarter (56-0): run, incomplete, sack.

UTEP (W, 49-42)
7. 1st quarter (0-7): complete, complete, incomplete.

East Carolina (W, 56-3)
8. 1st quarter (14-3): complete, complete, false start, incomplete.
9. 3rd quarter (42-3): incomplete, run, incomplete.

Marshall (W, 63-28)

Rice (W, 73-34)
10. 4th quarter (73-34): incomplete, run, run.
11. 4th quarter (73-34): incomplete, incomplete, run.

U.A.B. (W, 56-13)

Tulane (W, 73-17)
12. 3rd quarter (38-10): run, incomplete, incomplete.

S.M.U. (W, 37-7)
13. 4th quarter (30-7): incomplete, run, incomplete.

Tulsa (W, 48-16)
14. 3rd quarter (20-16): complete, run, incomplete.

Southern Mississippi (L, 49-28)
15. 1st quarter (0-0): complete, incomplete, run.
16. 2nd quarter (14-21): incomplete, run, run.
17. 3rd quarter (21-35): run, complete, run.
18. 3rd quarter (21-42): complete, incomplete, incomplete.

Penn State (W, 30-14)
19. 2nd quarter (17-0): incomplete, sack, complete.
20. 4th quarter (30-14): run, incomplete, sack.

This is a simplified look at Houston’s ability to move the chains in 2011, when the Cougars led the F.B.S. in scoring, passing and total offense. The count — nine fewer than Notre Dame’s total turnovers, by the way — doesn’t include the handful of occasions when Houston opted to go for it on fourth down on the tail end of a three-and-out rather than punt.

This was Houston’s modus operandi: push the ball, push it down field, push on first down, push it on third down. Never settle. Always keep the pressure on in the passing game, going for broke even in short-yardage situations. Act, making the opposition react, and never vice versa. This is how Houston kept teams off balance; this is how the Cougars dominated offensively.

Therefore, the two notable instances when Houston didn’t push the tempo stand out. Both came against in Houston’s lone loss, to Southern Mississippi. Both came with the game still very much in doubt, with the Golden Eagles up by a touchdown and two touchdowns in the second and third quarters, respectively.

The first: Down 21-14 with 2:30 left in the second quarter, U.H. opted to punt from its own 43 on 4th-1. On its next series, Houston would again opt to punt on fourth down from its own 43; Southern Mississippi blocked the punt, with the Golden Eagles’ Furious Bradley returning it the distance for the touchdown.

The second: Down 35-21 with 2:50 left in the third quarter, the Cougars ran out the punt team from, again, its own 43 on 4th-1. Three plays later, Austin Davis hit Tracy Lampley for a 61-yard touchdown — 42-21. Ballgame.

Both were so unlike Houston as to come to the conclusion that the Cougars lost their poise in the biggest game of the season. At the very least, Houston lost its identity. After forcing opponents to react all season with the proactive approach offensively, the Cougars got cold feet.

One theory is that then-coach Kevin Sumlin coached as if everyone was watching, dissecting his big-game coaching approach. And everyone was watching, including representatives from Texas A&M, Arizona State and others, all with a head coaching vacancy to fill.

Why else would Sumlin have played it so safe but to avoid painting a picture of a gun-slinging, unorthodox coaching style? Such a mentality might play well in Conference USA, but was Sumlin’s approach against Southern Mississippi plagued by worries over what his potential suitors might think about his in-game methods?

These safe coaching decisions were extremely out of character for the Cougars: Houston’s full-bore, pedal-to-the-floor mentality was ignored in what was the program’s biggest game in decades. A win meant a B.C.S. berth. A loss sent Houston from a likely spot in the Orange Bowl to the TicketCity Bowl. No team suffered a greater drop in bowl fortunes over the final two weekends of the regular season.

Season grade: A+ This was the finest season in school history. The Cougars won a program-record 13 games; scored a program-record 690 points; averaged just shy of 50 points per game; had a Heisman-worthy quarterback setting a slew of N.C.A.A. career records; and for the first time since 1999, allowed fewer than 324 points in a season. Don’t sleep on the latter fact, as while the offense got the headlines it was the defense that lifted Houston from Conference USA leader to B.C.S. contender. The Cougars finished 35th nationally in total defense after finishing 96th in that category in 2010. The Cougars could always score points; that they could stop opponents from doing the same lifted them into the national title picture.

High point A 48-16 win over Tulsa on Nov. 25. To that point, the Golden Hurricane were the best team Houston faced all season. The Cougars broke it open over the game’s final 17 minutes, breaking Tulsa’s back with 28 unanswered points.

Low point The loss to Southern Mississippi. The worse part? The Golden Eagles dominated a Houston offensive front that did a strong job protecting the quarterback all season. While U.S.M. only sacked Case Keenum twice, its defensive line jostled Houston’s timing in the passing game.

Offensive M.V.P. You’ve heard them all before, but Keenum’s F.B.S. passing records included the following: total offense, passing yards, touchdowns responsible for, touchdown passes and completions. Merely in 2011, Keenum threw for 5,631 yards and 48 touchdowns against only 5 interceptions. Forgotten was the fact that Keenum was coming off a fairly significant knee injury suffered three games into the 2010 season. He showed some rust early, scuffling — by his standard — against U.C.L.A. and Louisiana Tech, but Keenum hit his stride in October. Over a seven-game span from E.C.U. to Tulsa, Keenum threw for 2,721 yards and 29 touchdowns against a single interception. He’s the finest quarterback in school history.

Defensive M.V.P. Weak side linebacker Sammy Brown wins on style points. Brown led the F.B.S. with 30 tackles loss, giving him 50 over his final two seasons, and added a team- and Conference USA-best 13.5 sacks. Middle linebacker Marcus McGraw wins on pure consistency: McGraw, with 141 tackles, led the team in stops for the fourth straight season. He ended his career second in school history in tackles, 40 shy of first. Brown’s explosiveness off the edge will be difficult for Houston to replace; McGraw’s consistency will be impossible for the Cougars to replace.

Stock watch It’s a time of incredible transition. Tony Levine is the permanent head coach after replacing Sumlin on an interim basis for the bowl win over Penn State. New offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt, formerly of Stephen F. Austin, replaces co-coordinators Kliff Kingsbury and Jason Phillips. Nesbitt headlines an all-new staff on offense, with each new addition at least somewhat versed in the intricacies of the Air Raid. Either David Piland or Bram Kohlhausen will replace Keenum under center, with Piland the early favorite. Brian Stewart, the architect of Houston’s rise on defense, is now running Randy Edsall’s defense at Maryland. With all this change, can Houston be considered the Conference USA West leader heading into September? The proof will be in pudding: Houston will reach bowl play, but until the Cougars show what they’re made of in September, the West division goes through S.M.U and Tulsa.

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  1. Parker says:

    Nice article, Paul.

    You raise an interesting question. Was this Houston’s finest season? We finished 14th in the Coaches Poll and failed to win Conference USA despite home field advantage.

    In 1973, Houston finished 11-1 and 9th in AP Poll. The only loss was by 7 points to Auburn on the road.

    In 1976, Houston finished 10-2, won the SWC, won the Cotton Bowl and finished ranked 4th in both polls.

    In 1979, Houston finished 11-1, won the SWC, won the Cotton Bowl against Nebraska, and finished ranked 5th in both polls. The only loss was by 8 points in a November contest with Texas.

    In 1990, Houston finished 10-1 and 10th in the AP. The only loss came on the road at Texas.

    Most Cougar fans believe 1979 was our best squad.

  2. willhclark says:

    It’s a toss up between 1979 and 1976

    1990 takes 3rd

    1973 4th

    1989 5th – Year Andre Ware won Heisman

    I would say 2011 is not really even in the UH top 5.

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