In the writing I’ve done for this countdown so far, I have enjoyed the chance to re-live some big wins and have found the re-living of losses to be valuable context to the larger picture of Cougar football in the last 20 or so years.
None of those losses quite compare to this one, though. I didn’t have a ‘difficult’ time writing this, so much as the details made me say out loud ‘that can’t be real’ several times as I did my usual research.
Stripped of context, the 2014 game against UTSA was a shockingly bad performance in most of the ways you can measure a team's performance.
When you add the context of this game being the season opener and the first ever game at the long-awaited debut of a beautiful, new on-campus stadium… well it’s so bad we couldn’t not include it in this countdown.
Leading into the Game:
This game was the season-opener for both teams, so both the Cougar and Roadrunner fan bases only had the previous year’s results and off season longing for football. So naturally both groups probably skewed towards optimism, like just about any would with no on-field results to contradict anyone.
It had been hard to be too optimistic for Cougar fans after 2012 with what projected to be an underclassmen heavy team, coming off a bad season and with the prospect of a season played entirely off campus during the construction of TDECU Stadium.
After that disappointing 2012 season, head coach Tony Levine took a 2nd stab at both of his coordinator hires: bringing in longtime Oklahoma State assistant Doug Meacham to run the offense and career NFL position coach David Gibbs to run the defense.
The combination of new coaches, the returning personnel and an impressive 2013 recruiting class yielded promising results.
There wasn’t really a signature win or super memorable moment I could tell you, but the Coogs improved from 5-7 in Levine’s first year to a respectable 8-4 regular season finish. The team won the games they were supposed to win and lost by narrow margins when they were the underdog.
In the 2013 regular season the Coogs didn’t lose a game by more than 7 points, which is probably my favorite weird fact from that year.
Gibbs’ re-branded ‘Third Ward Defense’ was a success that outdid even the most optimistic hopes for the group. Despite playing a ton of underclassmen like Trevon Stewart, Steven Taylor, Adrian McDonald and Tyus Bowser (just to name a few) they improved dramatically in every category.
That year the Coogs forced an incredible 43 turnovers, including 25 interceptions. While the fluky elements of turnovers can be debated, the way Gibbs emphasized forcing turnovers was undoubtedly having some effect. The Coogs led the country in turnovers forced, Stewart led the country individually in takeaways and the team allowed the fewest points per game since 1999.
On the other side of the ball the improvements were more modest, but still noticeable. Returning starter David Piland appeared to win the job out of fall camp but was pushed by star recruit John O’Korn and there was talk of a QB rotation a la the 2007 Keenum/Joseph QB timeshare.
In week 2 on the road at Temple (the first ever AAC league football game) Piland left the game early with a concussion and O’Korn grabbed the starting job for the remainder of the season. Meacham’s offense was more conservative than your average UH offense, but it suited the fact that O Korn and most of the personnel were inexperienced.
My favorite thing about that season was Deontay Greenberry looking like the blue-chip, high 4-star signee we’d expected to see the moment he signed in the spring of 2012.
The only potential cause for alarm was Meacham’s departure to TCU and Levine’s immediate decision to promote Travis Bush to being sole OC. Bush had previously coached running backs and was interim OC for much of the 2012 season. He went back to coaching RBs in 2013, while nominally being co-OC with Meacham. Bush’s first game, against Vanderbilt in the Birmingham Bowl, was a spectacular failure.
UTSA had clear cut reasons for optimism as well, as they were coming off a 7-5 season. The Roadrunners were full members of Conference USA and in only their 3rd season in program history. The Roadrunners finished 2nd in their division and all 7 wins came over FBS opponents but were only conditionally eligible for bowl selection and did not play a postseason game.
Larry Coker, the Roadrunner’s 4th year head coach, was going to have to figure out how to replace Eric Soza, the only starting QB in school history. But the Roadrunners returned an enormous 36-man senior class, largely guys from the programs first ever signing class, with numerous key players among that group.
The Coogs weren’t opening their season with a cupcake by any stretch, but I don’t remember many in the UH fan base predicting an upset in this one.
If you go back and look at enough college football games in the past, you’ll realize how unique each game is when examined closely.
This game felt like an event the likes of which I hadn’t seen since the ill-fated 2012 season-opening loss to Texas State, though this was on another scale. As an undergraduate I remember waiting over an hour in line to have my ID scanned. By the time I reached the entrance it was the middle of the 1st quarter and overwhelmed student volunteers were wildly waving everyone through the entrance as fast as they could walk/run.
I got to my seat just in time to see a botched punt near midfield give UTSA the ball deep in Cougar territory, allowing the Roadrunners to score and go up 7-0 on the very next play.
On the next drive, the Coogs went 10 plays and 62 yards but turned the ball over on downs in UTSA territory. They went 10 plays on their next possession and got into the red zone, but an O’Korn 3rd & Goal pass was picked off by Triston Wade.
After those 2 sustained, fruitless drives the Cougar offense didn’t get a 1st down on their next SEVEN possessions, spanning from late in the 1st quarter to early in the 4th.
The Cougar defense looked every bit the lockdown unit they’d been the prior season, holding the Roadrunners scoreless on 8 of their first 9 possessions. When your offense is having a historically bad performance, the proverbial dam will eventually break.
The Roadrunners broke through with back to back TD drives at the end of the 2nd quarter and on their first possession of the 3rd. The visitors were able to lean on their RB duo David Glasco II and Jarveon Williams, along with the occasional pass from senior QB Tucker Carter.
Really, UTSA’s offense didn’t do that well against the Coogs but compared to their opponents they were ‘Tom Brady and the 16-0 Patriots’. After looking the part of a high-ceiling freshman, O’Korn put together maybe the worst single-game performance in UH history to open his sophomore year.
O’Korn accounted for 5 turnovers (4 interceptions, 1 lost fumble), completed fewer than half of his pass attempts for a miserable 4.7 yards per attempt. The Coogs’ junior RB duo of Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson combined for only 35 rush yards on 13 carries. Nobody on the offense had a good night. As a team the Coogs had negative rush yards for the night.
Appropriately enough, after the Coogs finally got a first down early in the 4th quarter down 24-0 and as soon as they got deep into UTSA territory, O’Korn threw his last interception to Mauricio Sanchez.
I spent much of the 4th quarter trying to meet up with my friend and current Pawdcast co-host Dustin and once our paths crossed, we quickly bid this awful game adieu.
UTSA managed one more field goal and led by backup QB Billy Cosh, the Coogs scored on their final possession of the night.
In the space of one game the Cougar fan base had gone from some degree of cautiously optimistic on Tony Levine as head coach to extraordinarily negative.
This game was the 2nd blowout loss in a home opener in Levine’s 3 years, which would have unacceptable before adding the context that these losses were to Texas State and UTSA.
Barring a miracle turnaround in the regular season’s remaining games, this result basically sealed the fate of Levine and his staff. It was obviously he’d failed at another OC hire and failed in not having O’Korn earn his starting job when he moved Greg Ward Jr to receiver in the off season.
Around 4 weeks later in a nationally televised home game vs UCF, Ward replaced O’Korn and as the cliché goes: the rest is history. Ward would go 6-2 as a starter over the rest of the 2014 season and cement his legacy among the programs best in the following 2 years.
The significance of this game was two-fold: it set the wheels in motion for a quarterback change and head coach change that Cougar football needed.