It felt odd for there to be a marquee, non-conference game in mid-November.
No, the Coogs’ showdown with the Louisville Cardinals and their Heisman contender QB Lamar Jackson felt like an early season game uprooted without explanation and placed near the end of an exciting, but frustrating year.
It became clear after the Coogs’ opening week win over Oklahoma (with a healthy dose of pre-season hype) and Jackson averaging 9-10 highlights a game for a Louisville team that looked destined for the CFB Playoff that this would be a big game.
Reality sometimes interferes with these hypothetical matchups and while the game between UH and Louisville wasn’t exactly ‘Hollywood scripted’ it ended up being a memorable night (at least for one fan base).
Leading into the Game:
They weren’t exact parallels, but the 2016 UH and Louisville seasons featured more than a few similarities.
One way or the other the beginning of the season would be notable for the Coogs as their opening week game was against Oklahoma in a jam packed NRG Stadium. There was timely offense, a suffocating defensive performance and a Brandon Wilson missed field goal return for a TD that carried the Coogs to a 33-23 win over the Sooners.
That win kicked the hype machine around the UH football program into overdrive. You almost couldn’t blame Cougar fans for looking at how thoroughly this team beat Oklahoma and start mentally counting all the games between the opening week and Louisville week as wins. I am not afraid to admit this is something I said out loud in the aftermath of the Oklahoma win.
And in the meantime, the Coogs took care of outmatched opponents like Texas State, UConn and Cincy to rise as high to as #5 in the country.
But they could not solve Will Worth and Navy’s flexbone offense in a 46-40 road defeat. The Midshipmen got to exact revenge on the team that denied them a trip to the AAC title game and ended Cougar fans’ dreams of an undefeated season and a shot at the CFB Playoff.
There were also some flaws in this Cougar team that were becoming apparent. The heart and soul of the offense QB Greg Ward Jr was clearly playing through multiple injuries and was trying to play behind an injury-riddled and inexperienced offensive line.
By the 2nd half of the season UH could not run the ball with any kind of consistency and that made the offense one-dimensional in a way it was ill-equipped to handle.
The defense was certainly the team’s better unit and Ed Oliver was having maybe the best season by a freshman defensive lineman ever. But DC Todd Orlando’s style did leave them vulnerable to big plays and the losses of Trevon Stewart and William Jackson III to graduation were felt in the secondary.
As I mentioned earlier, Louisville had their own hot start to the year led by their dual-threat sophomore QB Lamar Jackson. The Coogs had seen Jackson early in the 2015 season in a road win that kick started momentum and good feelings in the early days of Tom Herman. Jackson was a far different player though a year later.
The South Florida native was a threat to break off a highlight reel run or throw an effortless looking deep ball touchdown. College football loves to overhype exciting quarterbacks, but Jackson was the genuine article.
Still, even with Jackson’s heroics Louisville was starting to show some cracks in the façade. Their offense was clearly being held back by a patchwork offensive line that required every ounce of Jackson’s improvisational ability.
The Cardinals offense stalled out for much of ACC wins over Duke (24-14) and Virginia and even trailed Wake Forest 12-3 at halftime, before scoring 41 unanswered points in that one.
Since the Cardinals were 9-1 with only a narrow road loss to top 5 Clemson on their resume, they came to Houston as the #3 team in the nation.
They would not leave Houston with any hope of remaining #3
On the day of the game I was still somewhat concerned about the kind of crowd that would show up at TDECU Stadium.
After all, the Coogs had not only seen their hope of an undefeated season end back in October, but 2 weeks later they lost by 22 points at SMU and saw even the hope of a return to an NY6 bowl end.
But good pre-game crowds at 8th Wonder Brewing and Calhoun’s Rooftop (R.I.P. the Rooftop) encouraged me. I was foolish to doubt Houstonians’ ability to show up for big flashy events, like playing the #3 team in the country on ESPN.
Early in the year I was inundated with people wanting to watch Cougar football, and I gave priority to one of 2 people from high school I was still friends with when he asked pre-season to join me for Louisville.
The first play could not have been scripted better to get this crowd of 42,000+ people into the game.
The Cougars kicked the ball off to Louisville and their return man Malik Williams fumbled the ball and Dillon Birden recovered it for the Coogs at their opponents’ 13-yard line. On the Coogs’ first offensive play, Ward found his running back Duke Catalon for a 13-yard TD pass.
While the Cougar offense slowed down a bit, the Cougar defense and a raucous, larger than average crowd made the Cardinals offense miserable. On the Cardinals’ 3rd possession Ed Oliver forced a fumble from RB Brandon Radcliff near midfield and this set the Coogs up for a field goal to go up 10-0.
After forcing another Cardinal ‘three and out’ early in the 2nd quarter, the Coogs got the ball back and this time they got a little crazy. On 4th down & 13 in Louisville territory, Dane Roy lined up to punt and the 27-year old Australian faked it and threw a surprisingly good pass to his long snapper Byron Simpson for 15 yards and a first down. Just 2 plays later Ward connected with Catalon for another 13-yard TD pass.
The Coogs were now up 17-0 and on the first play of the next Louisville possession a 32-yard completion was wiped out by a holding penalty on his right guard Kiola Mahoni. Jackson responded the next play with a 20-yard 1st down completion, but a sack by Oliver 2 plays later effectively killed the drive.
After another Louisville punt, the Cougar offense rattled off a 12 play/73-yard TD drive that was capped off by a Catalon rushing TD. The score was now 24-0 and or the first time in several weeks the Cougar offense was looking like a well-oiled machine.
This had to be panic time for Louisville, but they only could manage another three and out, and Mahoni committed his 3rd penalty of the half.
UH only needed 2 plays on their next possession to find the end zone, this time on a receiver pass by Linnell Bonner to his fellow receiver Chance Allen for a 50-yard touchdown. The home team was up 31-0 before halftime and TDECU Stadium by this point was an inhospitable cauldron of noise.
The 2 teams went into halftime with the score 31-0 and while UH didn’t find the end zone in the remaining quarters, this game never got close.
Jackson did lead the Cardinals’ first TD drive of the night on their first possession of the 3rd quarter, but was sacked 3 times on their first 2 drives of the half and fumbled in the Cougar red zone on the next possession.
Because the Cardinals were trying to chase a multi-score lead head coach and play caller Bobby Petrino went extremely pass-heavy and Jackson took 7 sacks in the 2nd half alone.
Steven Taylor went out with style in his last home game, leading the team with 2.5 sacks and 14 total tackles. Fellow seniors Tyus Bowser and Nick Thurman combined for 7 QB hits and 2.5 sacks between them. The star freshman Oliver also added a team-high 3 TFL and his 2 sacks.
All in all, 8 different Cougar defensive players recorded at least 1 sack of Jackson on that night.
Though the game was never really in doubt during the 2nd half, Bowser sacking Jackson for a safety with 3:55 left in the game was the exclamation point on a demolition of the country’s #3 team.
Minutes later the Cougar student body would rush the field and I would enjoy rushing the field one last time in my last game as a UH undergrad.
In a season that had fallen short of its own impossible expectations, it was one last moment of euphoria.
For all the emotional high that came from this win, there wasn’t much in the way of good vibes in the immediate aftermath.
The creeping inevitability of Tom Herman’s exit peaked in the final week of the season as some combination of Herman and his agent spent most of the week trying to start a bidding war between LSU and the cow college in Austin.
One of the week’s most surreal moments was ESPN saying Herman was being pursued by LSU in the middle of LSU’s game against Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night. This was topped by a bizarre attempt at a denial by Herman in a pregame interview with Cole Cubelic before UH’s game with Memphis.
The Cougars never quite looked in sync in a close regular season finale loss at Memphis and to the surprise of nobody Herman was announced as the Longhorns’ head coach barely 24 hours after the end of the UH regular season.
In the subsequent month, university leadership conducted a search that somehow landed on Major Applewhite as the head coach, to the surprise of just about everyone. Applewhite’s 1st game as head coach was a listless to San Diego State at the Las Vegas Bowl, an warmup for 2 years of disappointing football under this head coach.
As a memorable night of college football, the experience of being at TDECU Stadium to see the Coogs beat Louisville and Lamar Jackson will be hard to top. The only thing keeping it from being higher on this countdown was the disappointing period of Cougar football that followed.
But it was an incredible night that will be the standard for great UH football crowds for many years to come.