A new era began for the University of Houston on Saturday as the inaugural season in the Big 12 Conference got off with a win against in state rivals, UTSA. While there were obvious areas of improvement, from the attendance to defensive performance, there were also things that must be improved upon moving forward.
Head Coach Dana Holgorsen started off his presser after the game praising the feel around the stadium during the day and the game. "This place looked awesome today," Holgorsen said. "It’s been a vision from our athletic department. From the administration. Certainly myself. I can’t thank the fans enough. The student section enough. They turned out. And they made a difference." One of the biggest arguments against adding UH to a P5 has been the support of the team. While not a sellout, the attendance was the highest it has been in years and was a strong start to the season.
On the field, the biggest area of improvement was the defense. Last year was a frustrating season of missed tackles and at times an inability to stop drives without the help of penalties or a lucky turnover. From the first drive last night you could see the difference. Newcomer Malik Fleming stood out claiming 2 of the 3 interceptions UTSA quarterback Frank Harris threw. The defense also had 0 penalties called against them which, obviously, is the best you can hope for.
Speaking of penalties, it was no secret that UH was one of the most penalized teams in the nation last year. The worst part was that the majority of the penalties weren't forced but rather just sloppy mistakes. There were only 3 penalties called against UH all game and one was a very questionable holding call. This type of disciple must be the norm heading forward into the Big 12 schedule.
What needs work
The offense was, at best, anemic for most of the game. Or as Holgorsen described it, "spotty". Donovan Smith in his first game as a Cougar looked like a competent QB with a lot of potential. Throwing for 233 yards and 2 TDs with 0 interceptions, you couldn't have asked for much better. The problem was, again, what seemed to be the confusing and boring play calling that we saw for a lot of the last year. In the second to last drive for UH they were facing a 3rd and 10. The play call? A handoff up the middle. Why was a shot not taken to get the first down or a least cut down the yardage to get a manageable 4th down play Dana likes to run? The run game was not working for most of the night and yet we still were trying the same type of handoff plays over and over again. To be fair, it was the first game of the year with a new QB and a new offensive line coach/run game coordinator and these things take time. To be fair, UTSA has a fantastic defense. But so does every Big 12 team UH will play this year. Establishing the run game and having more dynamic play calling has to be a priority moving forward.
Dana is the type of play caller that will go for a 4th down at pretty much any given point in a game. That nearly cost him Saturday night. In the first quarter, UH was well within in field goal range and had a 4th and 2. Instead of taking the points, the offense stayed on the field and didn't get the first down. Later in the game, there was another situation where it was fourth and short. The field goal would have been longer, about a 45 yard attempt, but again the offense stayed on the field. Again, they didn't convert. Knowing that UTSA was not going to be an easy win, these field goals should have been kicked to put points on the board. Moving forward against stiffer competition, when in the position to take or extend a lead, Dana needs to take points over an offense that didn't show any capability of converting on 4th and short.
One last area for improvement that needs to happen, not only for football but for the entire athletic department, is the follow through on marketing campaigns. The Oiler blue jerseys were an amazing idea. They looked great. They felt younger, hipper and cooler a la Brett Yormark. The only issue is that there was no merchandise to sell. A small fortune could have and should have been made. Hats, UH polos in that color and shirts should have been for sale immediately. Instead, Athletic Director Chris Pezman said on a local radio station in the afternoon that they are "coming." How long that takes is anyone's guess. This is part of the learning curve as the athletic department transitions to power status: you have to anticipate and meet fan(customer) demand. To bad this curve cost them some serious money.
UH will take the field on September 9th at Rice on the NFL Network at 6 p.m. On Sunday, the Coogs opened as 10 point favorites over the Owls. TCU next week will be a much tougher task than Rice, so this game is important to make improvements and get better, specifically in the run game and offensive flow. There is much to be excited about and much to work on. Dana and his coaching staff have a lot of work ahead of them.