With the opponent preview series almost done, I figured that our last pre-season writing series should be one that focused closer to home.
I have a hard time believing sometimes we’re now 19+ years into this new century, a century that has largely seen a renaissance for Cougar football after a rough 1990s.
This latest written series will cover the 19 most significant, for positive or negative reasons, Cougar football games of the 21st century. The word significant is important as I tried to choose 19 games that had a large-scale impact on the program.
There are many memorable games I won’t include, because while they were fun in the moment and in reminiscing, they didn’t have a significant impact on the program. A good example of this would be the 2009 win at Tulsa. In that game the Coogs scored a touchdown and recovered an onside kick to set up a Matt Hogan game-winning field goal, all in less than a minute of game action.
That moment was insanely fun but didn’t really change the course of that season.
Part of the fun of these kinds of pieces is the subjectivity, so if you have an issue with where we ranked one of these games when we begin the series please get in touch with our reader/listener liaison: Mowgli.
There were also a handful of games that didn’t make the cut that I figured were at least worth an honorable mention below, in no particular order:
Georgia- 35, Houston- 7 (2001)
On a beautiful early December afternoon in Athens, Georgia the #16 Bulldogs handed the Coogs a decisive loss to end UH’s first (and to date, only) ever winless season.
Coming off 4 consecutive 20+ point losses in CUSA play, the result certainly wasn’t a surprise. The Coogs were at times surprisingly competitive on the road against an SEC foe. The Dawgs didn’t score until the 6:30 mark in the 2nd quarter and only went into halftime with a 14-0 lead.
But the Dawgs scored 3 touchdowns in an 11-minute stretch of the 3rd quarter and their head coach Mark Richt pulled the starters by the middle of the quarter. Richt was confident the 0-10 Cougars couldn’t overcome a 28-point deficit in a quarter and a half, and can you blame him?
There were precious few UH highlights from this one. The Coogs’ leading receiver Orlando Iglesias caught his final collegiate touchdown pass against UGA’s backups at the end of the 3rd quarter. On the other sideline, future longtime NFL tight end Benjamin Watson (at the time UGA’s backup TE) caught a screen pass and took it 49 yards for a touchdown.
This game was the beginning of the end for Dana Dimel as head coach at UH. Certainly not all the blame for the 2001 season should fall on Dimel and his staff, as they inherited a program in bad shape and with no fan interest. But I firmly believe the long shadow of the winless 2001 season was a big part of costing Dimel his job the following year and led to UH hiring Art Briles.
Houston- 34, Louisville- 31 (2015)
On paper this was just a week 2 win over a middle of the pack ACC team in Louisville on the road. In reality though, it offered an invaluable proof of concept to a team that by their head coach’s admission may have been on the fence about Tom Herman and his hard-charging coaching staff.
The Cougar offense only scored 10 points in the first 3 quarters, benefiting from a 100-yard Brandon Wilson kick return immediately after the Cardinals had scored a touchdown to go ahead. But the 4th quarter was fast and furious with Greg Ward Jr throwing 2 TD passes, including a 15-yard TD to DeMarcus Ayers to go up for good.
This was a coming out party of sorts for Ward Jr who showed incredible ability as a runner in 2014, but now looked like a confident passer at the college level.
Confidence is such a critical part of elite teams, regardless of sport, and that 2015 Cougar team I believe defied the numbers and pre-season expectations in some part because how bought-in they were.
If they’d found a way to lose this game up at Louisville, I really don’t think the Coogs would’ve gone on to have the year they ended up having.
ECU- 38, Houston- 32 (2009)
For my decade plus of Cougar fandom I can think of few seasons that were as much of a roller coaster as the 2009 season was.
You had the incredible highs of beating a top 5 Oklahoma State team on the road, the incredible game day experience of beating Texas Tech at Robertson on national TV and a couple pretty insane conference wins (Tulsa, Southern Miss). But you also had the let down of getting pummeled by UTEP after the Tech win and, well, this game.
This game was an ultimate study in contrasts. The Coogs threw the ball 75 times and Case Keenum finished the day with 527 passing yards and 5 touchdowns. On the other side the Pirates relied on a nearly 50/50 balanced run/pass attack and a much more deliberate pace.
What kept the Pirates in this one was Keenum also threw 3 interceptions and the Pirates won the overall turnover battle 4 to 1.
The last of those interceptions was Pirate defender Van Eskridge catching a tipped ball intended for Coog receiver LJ Castile in the back of the end zone, effectively ending the game.
On a cold, rainy December day in Eastern North Carolina it was a cruel end to UH’s most nationally prominent season in nearly 2 decades.
Houston- 28, USF- 24 (2017)
I wanted to put this in more than any of the 5 games I’m doing for this section.
It was Major Applewhite’s most ‘throw it against a wall and see if sticks’ decision. After Kyle Postma struggled and the Cougar offense scored 0 points in the first half against USF, Applewhite surprised everyone and put D’Eriq King out at QB to start the 2nd half.
That King had taken a total of zero snaps at QB in the week prior and would be facing the conference’s best defense on the road was apparently still not enough for Applewhite to want to watch any more of 2017’s QB rotation of various Kyles.
At times King looked like a guy who hadn’t played a meaningful snap at QB in 2 years and was trying to figure out an extremely veteran, athletic defense. But he also showed a dynamism that no other Cougar QB had shown at any point that year and led 4 TD drives in the 2nd half, 3 of which went 70+ yards.
It should also be noted the Cougar defense also held one of the country’s best running QBs: Quinton Flowers, to 7 yards on 14 carries and generally did a good job keeping the team in the game.
But the moments every Cougar fan who watched the game will remember are an improbable 30-yard completion from King to Courtney Lark and a 20-yard touchdown run from King with 11 seconds left to give the Coogs their first lead of the game and a victory.
The Coogs snapped a 24-game streak of USF scoring 30 or more points and a winning streak that had spanned over a season’s time. It also settled any QB controversy at Houston for a few years.
Tulane- 31, Houston- 24 (2014)
I am not completely sure this would have changed the fact that Tony Levine and his staff were going to be let go after the 2014 season. That’s probably why it didn’t make the final cut of the 19 most significant games.
Although regular CUSA division foes for most of this century, this was the first time the Green Wave and Coogs faced off as AAC members. The Coogs had defeated the ‘Wave in the final ever game at Robertson Stadium to end the 2012 season and didn’t face each other in 2013.
Despite the snazzy SWC era throwback uniforms the Coogs wore for homecoming, this was an extraordinarily ugly game.
The Coogs couldn’t establish a run game against Nico Marley and a locked in Tulane defense and Greg Ward Jr. threw an uncharacteristic 4 interceptions. The Cougar defense allowed the Wave’s redshirt freshman QB Tanner Lee to throw for 3 touchdowns (25% of his season output!) and 237 yards. Maybe the most frustrating aspect was the Coogs just could not get the Green Wave off the field on 3rd down and their opponents converted on 62.5% (10/16) of 3rd downs.
For some reason I can still vividly remember the 4th & Goal play where Ward Jr threw a game-ending interception to Parry Nickerson. In the immediate aftermath I remember just sitting there processing what an appallingly bad experience the whole game was.
That game was certainly it for Levine, nice of a guy as he was. It was pretty much impossible to really buy into this staff anymore after watching yet another team that was a serious underdog come in and beat the Coogs at home.