Houston Cougars football defense free safety Gervarrius Owens intercepts a pass by Texas Tech quarterback Donavan Smith. (Courtesy Houston Athletics)
The Houston Cougars football team’s defense has been thrown into the fire situationally in the team’s first five games. Right out the gates, the unit has been put in a position where it can clinch the game for the Cougars with a final stop, in some instances, multiple times in each game.
The only matchup of the year that hasn’t come down to the defense needing to make a stop on the last play of the game was against a high-powered Kansas team that put 48 points up on the scoreboard. Now as the team heads into a game against Memphis, UH is seeking to figure out how to close out ball games.
“We got to be able to handle (closing games),” Houston defensive coordinator Doug Belk said. “It is part mental, part physical and then myself just finding better ways to put guys in position to be successful, and guys being in those positions and making plays and doing what they’re coached to do.”
Belk said there has been some good from his defense, some bad and some ugly. In order for Houston to get to a point where it is playing at a championship-caliber level, Belk said, the defense needs to cut off the ugly.
Belk is excited about the defense’s physicality, how they have been able to affect opposing quarterbacks at times, and some of the plays the defense has been able to make on the back end in the secondary, he said. Ultimately, however, the game is about winning or losing, he said.
“There’s a lot of areas that we have to improve in if we want to win football games, so it doesn’t matter what we did before the last drive if we ain’t finish the drill,” Belk said. “That’s really been the message moving forward.”
Following the Cougars’ loss to Tulane, head coach Dana Holgorsen said there was enough blame to go around. The offense did not make enough plays to win the game, the defense failed to stop the Green Wave, led by third-string quarterback Kai Horton, in the final drive of the game and in overtime, and Houston’s special teams missed two field goal attempts.
While many Houston fans have the Tulane ending fresh in their minds, the UH defense has been able to have success in late-game moments. Against UTSA, the defense stopped quarterback Frank Harris and the Roadrunners’ offense from converting on the final two-point conversion that would have forced a fourth overtime.
Against Rice, the Owls were able to complete a wild hail mary play, but the Houston defense was able to hang on and stop Rice quarterback TJ McMahon from connecting with receiver Luke McCaffrey on the final play of the game.
Houston has had more than its share of failures in late-game situations. Against Texas Tech, UH allowed the Red Raiders to convert a fourth-and-20 in the first overtime that would have sealed the game. The defense also allowed quarterback Donovan Smith to rush for the game-winning touchdown.
The Cougars failed to stop the Kansas Jayhawks’ offense as they rushed for 280 yards and three touchdowns against UH’s defense. And against Tulane, Houston gave up an 11-play, 75-yard drive to tie the game and another 25-yard walk-off drive in overtime.
Against Memphis, Houston will be challenged again and it all starts with quarterback Seth Henigan, who has a strong arm, makes little mistakes and can hurt UH with his feet, Belk said.
As Houston prepares for the Tigers, Belk said he could not pinpoint one specific reason for the defense’s struggles in late-game situations.
“Whether it was a lack of understanding, or whether I haven’t coached them well enough, or guys just simply not making the plays in critical situations,” Belk said. “At the end of the day, that is my job to get those guys in position to make plays. I don’t think it is just one thing.”
For defensive lineman Atlias Bell, the focus in practice leading up to Memphis has been on the little things, he said. The defense has emphasized tackling and communication, he said.
“There is a lot of plays where we can be off the field, and we might miss a tackle or just the communication’s not all the way there,” Bell said. “We have certain people doing other things. It’s just communication and execution and tackling.”