And the Defenses Shall Lead Them As UH and Rice Go Bowling

McMillian.JPG
Stephen Pinchback/Houston Athletics Communications
Houston's Zach McMillian returns an interception as Trevon Stewart looks for someone to block
The Houston Cougars (8-4) and Rice Owls (9-3) won their football games this weekend on the backs of their defenses. While that's not the way past UH and Rice football teams won games, it's been how they did it this season. It's been strange to watch, and an entirely different experience, but it's also been fun.

The Cougars defeated the SMU Ponies (5-6) by a 34-0 score on Friday afternoon. That was the first time that a June Jones-coached college team had ever been shutout. It was also the first time the Cougars had shutout the opposition in a conference game since the glory days of Jack Pardee on December 2, 1989. The Owls then went out and defeated the Tulane Green Wave (7-5) on Saturday evening, holding Tulane to a total of 26 rushing yards and 123 total offensive yards for the game while not giving up a first down until the end of the third quarter.

The turnarounds of the two defenses have been led, in large part, by the defensive coordinators. David Gibbs is in his first year on the job at UH, and Chris Thurmond's in his second year at Rice. Both coordinators have been rewarded with nominations for the Broyles Award which is given each year to the country's top college assistant coach.

Cougar head coach Tony Levine and Owls head coach David Bailiff have been full of praise for their assistants and their defensive units all season. But it's more than just coaching praise that proves their worth. The players talk of changed philosophies, changed attitudes. The stats are superlative for both teams. And both units have switched things around, taking the pressure off offenses that haven't always been what they were in the past.

THE HOUSTON TURNAROUND

The Cougars defense has been disarray since the departure of Jack Pardee way back in the day. The school's often relied on high-power offenses to make up for the poor defense, and head coach after head coach has blown through one defensive coordinator and one defensive philosophy after another. But after last year's 5-7 season, Levine went about changing the culture. His first step being the addition of Gibbs to his staff and going with Gibbs' decision to simplify.

"Simplifying our defensive package allows us more time to work on tackling, to work on the fundamentals, to work on creating turnovers, and you've seen the great combination this season of everything I just talked about," Levine said. "We've simplified, we've stressed techniques and fundamentals, and the results to me have been very evident."

UH forced four turnovers against SMU, once again winning the turnover battle. There were three interceptions and a fumble recovery, and as has often been the case, the turnovers came at opportune times, stopping drives. Eric Eiland's fumble recovery and 62-yard return the SMU one-yard line at the end of the first half stopped SMU's best scoring drive of the day, and it set up a touchdown on the next play that put UH up 24-0 and effectively ended the game.

"That's been a common theme for our entire team this season and specifically defensively," Levine said. "Our guys have been flying around, they've been taking a lot of pride in playing good defense. The turnovers, that's a habit and second nature for our young men, and something they're taking pride in."

The Cougars now get to wait a few weeks before they play again. Now they wait to find out what bowl game they'll be heading to, with the hopes to show a national offense that the Cougar defense is now more lethal than the offense.


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