Note: We are beginning a new series for August, examining the 19 most significant games of the 21st century heading into the 2019 Cougar football season. We did a more thorough introduction to the series here.
As someone who grew up in the city of Houston and as an adult became a diehard University of Houston sports fan, it may surprise you to learn I watched little in the way of UH sports growing up.
Then again, if you’re even somewhat familiar with Cougar sports in the 1990s and early 2000s, you wouldn’t be that surprised.
The first game of our series comes from that very dark age of Cougar sports, as we begin with the Cougars’ 2002 match up with the South Florida Bulls.
Believe it or not, this game is still available in full on the internet as it was broadcast on Fox Sports Net to a national audience. I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you’re a South Florida fan looking for some nostalgia.
I have been to my share of share of Cougar games with less than stellar crowds, but the sight of Robertson Stadium being (generously) 20% full for a TV game is a reminder of how hopeless things were in that era. It felt like watching a different school, despite the familiar logo, uniforms and fight song.
Leading into the Game:
The 2002 season was the year Cougar head coach Dana Dimel’s impressive recruiting would start to manifest itself in the on-field results.
That Dimel signed Conference USA’s best recruiting class after the program bottomed out with a winless season in 2001 was an impressive endorsement. The early returns for 2002 were at least mildly encouraging.
Led by exciting redshirt freshman QB Barrick Nealy the Coogs broke their year plus losing streak by beating Rice 24-10 in the opening week. But Nealy suffered a season-ending injury after 4 weeks and junior Nick Eddy took over the QB job, finishing the season throwing an interception nearly every 14 (!!!) pass attempts.
But the biggest problem for the Coogs was defense, or specifically an inability to do much of it late in games. At UAB’s homecoming the Coogs at one point held a 28-6 lead late in the 2nd quarter and somehow managed to lose to the Blazers 51-34 and surrender 21 points in the 4th quarter.
Against ECU at home a month later, the Coogs allowed 17 4th quarter points and lost after 3 overtimes.
The Cougars had progressed from being demolished by everyone on their schedule to beating the dregs, losing by a bunch to good teams and blowing leads against roughly equal opponents. That did represent progress, but certainly not the kind that would get any fans, save the most die hard, interested in the program again.
At this point in the season UH was 4-6, with the first non-losing season since 1999 technically within the grasp of the team. Their opponent was hardly a pushover, though.
USF was entering their 2nd and final season as a transitional member of Division 1-A. The Bulls only started playing intercollegiate football in 1997 and played as a Division 1-AA independent until making the leap to the highest level in 2001. While they wouldn’t be officially a Conference USA member until 2003, the Bulls played a partial CUSA schedule both of their transition seasons.
Going in there was at least some bad blood. This stemmed from Dimel poaching a couple coaches from the USF staff and I’d imagine at least some on the UH side from the 45-6 pounding the Bulls gave UH in Tampa the year before. Dimel and Bulls head coach Jim Leavitt were both on Bill Snyder’s Kansas State staff from 1990-95.
To this point in the season the Bulls were 8-2 thanks to a stingy defense and veteran QB Marquel Blackwell (current UH co-offensive coordinator and QB coach) a run/pass dual threat who was superhuman at avoiding interceptions.
Out of all the match ups in this one, the Cougars’ run offense versus the Bulls’ run defense was probably the best strength versus strength match up this game offered.
The Coogs’ senior RB Joffrey Reynolds ended up finishing the year #13 nationally with 1,545 rush yards as part of a rush offense that averaged 170 yards per game, good for 44th nationally. The Bulls were tied for 7th in the country in rush defense, allowing only 87.2 rush yards per game.
On paper the Bulls were the better team and for once a game bore out exactly as the numbers would predict. Reynolds was held to somewhere under 1 yard per carry in the 1st half, which basically solved the Coogs.
Every so often the Coogs hit a deep shot, but Dimel and his staff had no way of sustaining drives without Reynolds’ ability to move the chains. Ultimately, Reynolds finished the game with only 59 rushing yards on 2.7 yards per carry.
The inability to run the ball by Reynolds and others forced Nick Eddy to attempt a season-high 49 passes. Eddy undeniably had some nice deep balls, but more often than not his passes found USF defenders and he finished the day with 7 interceptions. That was an interception every 7 pass attempts!
The Coogs’ run defense, a top 40 unit themselves, did their best to keep the team in this game and held USF to only 2.4 yards per carry. The Bulls offense did do an excellent job using Blackwell’s dual threat ability close to the end zone and he finished the day with 3 rushing TDs.
As a result of the Coogs’ offensive futility, USF had no problem gradually building up a 32-0 by the latter stages of the 3rd quarter. The Coogs allowed Blackwell to throw for over 300 yards and create more than a few big plays, so they were not entirely without fault.
With the game well out of hand, the Coogs scored the last 14 points of the game. Junior WR Brandon Middleton was one of the few bright spots, accounting for both of the Coogs’ touchdowns and finishing the day with 119 receiving yards.
The final score line of 32-14 flattered the Coogs as this one was dominated by the Bulls from the word ‘go’.
The decisive loss guaranteed UH’s 10th losing record in 12 years and Dimel’s 3rd in as many years leading the Houston program.
Early the following week new UH athletic director Dave Maggard informed Dimel he was being let go and allowed him and his staff to coach the season finale against Louisville. The Coogs’ 27-10 win over a good Louisville team only served to tantalize Cougar fans (and probably Dimel to a degree) with that team’s potential.
There’s a good chance that Maggard would have made a change in the leadership of Cougar football, regardless of this game’s outcome. But the way UH got dismantled by yet another conference foe made it impossible for Dimel to continue. For all the local recruiting relationships rebuilt and talent he brought in, the on-field product hadn’t improved at all from when he arrived 3 years before.
Maggard named his replacement less than 2 weeks later: longtime Texas high school coach and then-Texas Tech assistant Art Briles. The 5 subsequent years were the beginning of a renaissance for Cougar football, as Briles led the Cougars to 4 winning seasons and the 2006 CUSA championship.
This game was the last of a dark age in Cougar football, whether anyone believed it or not at the time.