I will admit it up front: this game is my biggest ‘push’ of all the ones I’ll have here in this countdown.
As I reviewed my somewhat fluid list of 19, I kept coming back to this one and asking myself if it belonged among a select list from an eventful period of Houston Cougar football.
But now I have reached a ‘point of no return’ and have decided that last year’s UH win over Arizona was worthy of the #17 slot in our humble countdown.
For those who are skeptical about this game’s inclusion in the top 19 I hope to convince you otherwise over the remaining thousand or so words.
Leading into the Game:
In the space of 9 years, beginning with Art Briles leaving for Baylor before the Texas Bowl at the end of 2007 and ending with Tom Herman leaving for ut-austin about 24 hours after the regular season’s end in 2016, UH fans saw other in-state institutions take their head coach 3 different times.
The feeling of losing a coach drove UH leadership crazy enough to hire the 4th most popular out of 4 candidates in replacing Herman: Major Applewhite. The idea of having a coach committed to staying at UH was appealing enough to overlook qualifications and negative fan reaction.
One thing Cougar fans never got to experience was seeing their team face any of these former coaches on the field. It always seemed like a pipe dream to think Baylor, Texas A&M or ut-austin would ever put UH on the schedule. But when Kevin Sumlin took the Arizona head coaching job in early 2018, Cougar fans indirectly got their wish.
That move was a bit of a surprise as it appeared Sumlin was going to not actively pursue any openings following his dismissal at Texas A&M in late 2017. However, Rich Rodriguez was fird late in the coaching carousel after claims of sexual harassment and an extramarital affair from a personal assistant.
Surprisingly, Sumlin took the notoriously difficult Arizona job and brought a lot of his former A&M assistants with him. This meant he would be playing the Houston leg of a home-and-home football series UH and Arizona scheduled years back.
Even coming off a disappointing first season under Applewhite, the thought of getting revenge on a coach who spurned UH was enough to pique Coog fans’ interest heading into 2018.
It’s hard to argue Sumlin didn’t leave UN for a higher profile job and noteworthy challenge as Texas A&M joined the SEC simultaneous to his arrival. But there were naturally hurt feelings from the Cougars getting demolished in the 2011 CUSA championship by Southern Miss after a 12-0 regular season as Sumlin negotiated his exit behind the scenes.
Not one soul in the Cougar fanbase felt good for him when he succeeded early on at College Station and the same number felt bad for him when his time with the Aggies ended. Even if this was 1 early season game of a series that was certain to end after this year, this game was one last chance for Coogs to let Sumlin know how they really felt about him leaving.
The game itself fell on the 2nd week of the 2018 season, so both teams were still unknown commodities. The Coogs ended up beating crosstown rival Rice 45-27 in a surprisingly close game and Arizona lost their opener 28-23 at home to BYU in a game where they trailed by as much as 18 points.
In a 1 game sample size the Cougar offense under new OC Kendal Briles looked capable of being incredibly explosive and Arizona’s new offense didn’t look like a good fit for their dynamic returning QB Khalil Tate.
This would be a foreshadowing of what happened when the Wildcats and Coogs took the field on a hot late Houston morning in early September.
Despite this game being the Coogs’ home opener, on ABC and against a notoriously disliked former coach, TDECU Stadium definitely had fewer than the 32,534 officil attendance actually in the building.
This had as much to do with an 11 AM kickoff time that guaranteed Cougar fans at nearly 4 hours outside in the teeth of a Houston summer.
As much of a drag as this was on attendance, it certainly made the game tougher for the Wildcats. This game was happening at 9 AM body clock time for Arizona’s players, not to mention in a kind of humidity not felt in Tucson.
Whether or not you believe in body clock effects or the humidity level mattering, the visitors certainly did not come ready to keep up with the Cougars.
The Cougar offense scored 3 touchdowns on their first 3 possessions, 2 D’Eriq King TD passes and a King TD run at the goal line.
Their defensive counterparts held up their end of the bargain too, keeping Khalil Tate and the new look Wildcat offense completely in check the entire first half. Out of their 8 possessions in the 1st half, the closest the Wildcats got to scoring was a missed field goal attempt late in the 1st quarter.
The most productive (and I use that term loosely) Wildcat drive from the opening half was a 9 play, 49-yard drive early in the 2nd quarter that was ended by a turnover on downs at the Cougar 35 yard line. Tate looked hobbled from a previous ankle injury and nothing like the QB who had been one of the sport’s most electric dual threat QBs in 2017.
While Tate and the Wildcats struggled to even get first downs, the Cougar offense was working to make this one a laugher by halftime. They slowed down a bit from their 3 TDs in 3 drive start, but a King TD pass to Bryson Smith with 3:44 left in the 2nd quarter gave the Coogs a 31-0 lead and that would be the score going into halftime.
As expected, the first team defense and offense played the opening possessions of the 3rd quarter. The defense forced a 3 & out and King found Keith Corbin for his 4th and final TD pass of the day, to extend the Cougar lead to 38.
On both sides of the ball the Cougar coaching staff put in the backups and for the first time Arizona showed some life. Over 9 minutes of game time from the end of the 3rd quarter until the middle of the 4th the Wildcats scored 18 unanswered points, capped by a Colin Schooler safety with 6:35 left in the game.
Those points didn’t really put the game outcome in doubt, but the failures by the backups were enough that the Cougar coaches put some of the starters back in and King ran for one last TD.
This would increase the Cougar lead to 27 and the game would end here as a 45-18 Cougar win.
While most of Cougars’ touchdowns came through the air, as a team they rushed for 297 yards with Patrick Carr and Terrence Williams combining for 132 yards on the ground. Marquez Stevenson also caught a TD pass and had a 60-yard run on an end around.
The Wildcats finished with 381 yards passing, but the majority of those yards came after the Coogs were too far ahead of to be caught. Importantly, they were intercepted twice and held to 3.0 yards per carry.
For a brief period, the story of week 2 was the once mighty former Texas A&M coach getting handed a humiliating blowout defeat by the school he spurned for greener pastures.
It was a kind of schadenfreude Cougar fans had never really experienced. The only option previously was to take delight in a former coach’s team getting upset or said coach feeling the wrath of their new school’s fanbase.
The Coogs got to thrash a P5 opponent on national television and those in attendance got to personally give Sumlin a piece of their mind. We may never get another chance to watch a Cougar team (regardless of sport) get that kind of revenge in the regular season. I don’t think Tilman Fertitta himself could pay Sumlin and Arizona enough money to do another home and home with UH.
In the grand scheme of the season, this was one of the high points if not the highest point for Cougar fans’ morale. A week later in Lubbock, the Coogs would get handed a 63-49 defeat where the defense let Texas Tech’s true freshman QB throw for 605 yards. The wheels wouldn’t truly fall off thought until conference play when successive injuries to Oliver and King badly derailed a promising season.
The Wildcats never truly got their offense figured out, though Tate progressed enough as a passer that Arizona still had a chance to be bowl eligible going into their final week rivalry showdown with Arizona State. But the Cats blew a 40-21 lead in a disastrous 4th quarter and for the first time since 2010 a Sumlin-coached team didn’t go to a bowl game.
I think the unique circumstances of getting to exact some revenge on one of the many coaches who left UH for another Texas school made it worthy of inclusion. When I try to look back on the positives of the 2018 season, I’ll think about what an incredible year King had at QB and how this team utterly humiliated Kevin Sumlin.